Gov. Paul LePage has consistently ranked among the most unpopular governors in the nation. If this year’s Maine election were solely a referendum on his leadership, it should have been an easy contest for Democrats to win.
Instead, the governor easily passed the test, and the vote tally in top-of-the-ticket races was a repudiation of Democrats. This was largely in line with results from across the nation Tuesday, as Republicans picked up more than enough seats to gain a majority in the U.S. Senate. Republicans also elected governor in the blue states of Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois. Republicans who faced supposedly uphill re-election contests, like LePage — such as Rick Scott of Florida, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Sam Brownback of Kansas — cruised to victory.
Tuesday’s results show the election was much more than a referendum on LePage’s leadership, since that dynamic was not enough to sway voters to choose Democrat Mike Michaud. Nationally, the elections did prove to be more of a referendum on President Barack Obama’s leadership, which helped Republican Bruce Poliquin defeat Democratic state Sen. Emily Cain in the 2nd Congressional District race after staking his campaign in part on efforts to tie Cain to Obama and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Pledges to undo LePage’s work — such as his rejection of Medicaid expansion, his combative approach to governing, his relentless campaign against welfare fraud — were not what the majority of voters were looking for. They weren’t looking to turn back the clock; they were looking for a new way forward, and Michaud didn’t provide it for them. Neither did independent Eliot Cutler, who won only 8 percent of the vote.
LePage and Republican allies also ran a shrewd campaign that was largely successful in recasting the pugnacious governor in a softer light. This approach likely bore fruit among voters who haven’t always supported LePage. And during the legislative session, the LePage administration set up the governor’s re-election campaign perfectly with a relentless focus on combating welfare fraud and cutting off assistance to immigrants in Maine without legal status. These issues proved critical to motivating LePage’s core base of supporters.
Democrats had no comparable cause for electoral enthusiasm.
This is a wake-up call for Democrats, who have not won a statewide election since the narrow re-election of Gov. John Baldacci in 2006, after which they posted third-place finishes in elections for U.S. Senate and governor. Their candidates, who rely on the tired Democratic notion that government is usually the answer to big problems, are not earning voter support or respect. Their resistance to embracing bold reforms that might offend supportive interest groups is likely hurting their electoral chances. And Democratic leaders in the Legislature performed poorly during the last two years, when they controlled comfortable majorities in the House and Senate. Time and again, Democrats easily were put in a corner by LePage, who, despite saying he is not a politician, is very astute at political maneuvering. Democrats, for example, failed to gain support for a deal that would pay the debt owed Maine hospitals — a top LePage priority — while expanding Medicaid coverage — a top Democratic priority. Instead, LePage paid off the hospitals and vetoed Medicaid expansion, repeatedly.
In addition to LePage’s victory, Republicans gained a slim majority in the Maine Senate while Democrats retained control of the Maine House. This could be a recipe for gridlock if neither party shows an appetite for working with the other.
If Maine’s newly elected legislators stand to accomplish much at all in the next two years, choosing reasonable leadership for their respective chambers is paramount.
This post represents the position of the BDN’s editorial board.