AUGUSTA, Maine — ’Tis the season to consider surprises. So instead of focusing on who keeps delivering those odd Secret Santa gifts, let’s shift into reflection mode to consider the political surprises of 2012.
The biggest surprise is no surprise. When U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, announced in late February that she would not seek a fourth term, the repercussions scrambled the state’s political establishment and rearranged Republicans’ and Democrats’ national campaign strategies for capturing control of the U.S. Senate. Much has been written about Snowe’s departure from the Senate and its implications, so let’s acknowledge its place as the most significant political surprise of 2012 and move on.
Every close observer of Maine politics contacted for this review listed a variation on what Ted O’Meara, a former GOP congressional candidate, Maine State Republican Party chairman and campaign manager for independent Eliot Cutler’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, called “the total collapse of the Republican Party in Maine.”
Controversies that erupted during the presidential preference caucuses in February and at the state convention in May plunged the Maine GOP from its “best position of strength in decades, with the governor and two chambers of the Legislature” to an electoral rout in November, O’Meara said.
On Election Day, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won only one county in Maine, and GOP candidates in Maine’s three elections for federal offices, including Snowe’s seat, lost handily. Democrats in 2012 also recaptured majorities in both chambers of the Maine Legislature.
“I thought there would be much more balance and much more competition between the parties,” O’Meara said.
That Democrats regained control of the Legislature after what appeared to be the beginning of a Republican power surge in 2010 proved surprising, but the convincing nature of the Democrats’ legislative victories qualified as “shocking,” according to George Smith, former executive director of the Maine Sportsman’s Alliance, conservative columnist and a veteran State House presence.
Dan Demeritt, a political consultant and former communications director for Gov. Paul LePage, and Emily Shaw, a political science professor at Thomas College in Waterville, agreed.
“A lot of good incumbent Republicans were driven from office by the energy and the issues that the Democrats ran on,” Demeritt said. “I was surprised by the extent of the swing to the majority that the Democrats now enjoy.”
Four incumbent Republicans in the Maine Senate lost re-election bids, while voters spurned 12 GOP House incumbents who sought new terms.
“Until 2010, we had always thought of state legislatures as tremendously safe places for incumbents,” Shaw said. “Then it happened again in 2012, although many ousted were freshmen. We’ve had two cycles that have not held to the model. Legislative elections have been fairly expensive and contentious, and incumbents have lost their seats. It’s an important transitional moment for state politics.”
Maine’s quick return to a Legislature controlled by Democrats conforms with a national political realignment that shows a solidly Democratic Northeast compared with an entirely Republican South in terms of state legislatures, Shaw said. The Arkansas Legislature’s shift from Democratic to Republican control, and Democrats’ gain of 115 seats in the New Hampshire Legislature this year amplify that partisan divide.
University of Maine political science professor Amy Fried and Michael Cuzzi, a former Democratic political strategist who manages the Portland office of VOX Global, pinpointed the Democrats’ retaking of the Maine Senate as this year’s big Election Day surprise.
“I thought the House had a good chance of switching party control but believed this was far less likely for the Senate,” Fried said, reflecting a perspective held by most political prognosticators before the election.
“The Democrats ran a very targeted campaign to take back the Maine Senate. They stuck to a very specific message on job creation and really advancing the middle class,” Cuzzi said. “I don’t think anyone went in with the expectation they would take the Senate back, but to do so with a strong margin was a dramatic surprise for 2012.”
In addition to rewarding savvy campaign work by Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant, the Democrats’ legislative victories signaled “a repudiation of [Gov.] LePage’s style and policies,” according to Orlando Delogu, professor emeritus at the Maine School of Law.
Political newcomer Allen Michael Nadeau’s defeat of Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, the only incumbent Democrat to lose a Maine House race, must be viewed as a shocker. Martin first won election to the Legislature in 1964, served as speaker of the House from 1975 until 1994 and represented Aroostook County in the Legislature for all but two years since 1964. His reputation as a State House power broker and source of institutional memory is legendary.
The race to succeed Snowe, won handily by independent former Gov. Angus King, provided minimal drama but a few surprises. Among them were a Republican-supporting national group’s purchase of ads touting Democrat Cynthia Dill (in hopes of cutting into King’s lead), the absence of support for Dill from national Democratic groups and King’s ability to amass more than 50 percent of the vote in a six-person race.
Independent U.S. Senate candidate Steve Woods’ endorsement of King early in the race also seemed surprising at the time, but it became less so after Woods demonstrated a penchant for unconventional campaign pronouncements before dropping out a week before Election Day.
Victories by congressional incumbents surprise no one, but the ease with which U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat seeking his sixth term, dismissed a challenge from Republican Maine Senate President Kevin Raye, did.
“Raye seemed to be the most formidable challenger Michaud faced in a long time, but he got no traction and found no issues that he could drive home and engage voters,” said Cuzzi, who also listed 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s recent appointment to the House Appropriations Committee and Michaud’s elevation to ranking minority member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs as positive surprises.
Although polls consistently showed majority support for a referendum to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine, passage of the measure shocked Smith and surprised others, based on the fact that pre-election polls reflected a similar advantage for gay marriage in 2009, when a people’s veto repealed a law approved by the Legislature.
Former Gov. John Baldacci’s consideration of another run for the Blaine House in 2014 is a 2012 surprise that could send shock waves into the new year and beyond.
Finally, in keeping with the season’s emphasis on peace and goodwill, the fact that high-profile Democrats such as Severin Beliveau and Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, testified glowingly in support of LePage legal counsel Dan Billings’ nomination to become a District Court judge struck a surprising note of bipartisanship. In turn, the gracious response from Billings, who spent years fighting aggressively and sometimes mercilessly for Republican causes, offers hope that even the most hardened political foes could surprise us all by finding accord in 2013.
Robert Long is a political analyst for the BDN.