March 23, 2019
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What do the election results tell Maine about November 2016?

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Bangor residents cast their votes on Tuesday at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In a political world where campaigning never stops, the attention of the political masses shifted from 2015 to 2016 in a flash Tuesday night, probably even before hundreds of town clerks across Maine had tidied up their polling places after a busy day.

The temptation to draw conclusions from current events to prognosticate the future is strong, even though there is a lot of time for sea changes between Nov. 4, 2015, and Nov. 8, 2016.

Here are a few comparisons of political bookends that lie a year distant from one another:

The results of two special elections for vacant House seats in southern Maine were major wins for Republicans, any way you parse it.

Barring an unlikely overturn of Tuesday’s election results if there’s a ballot recount in Sanford, Republicans have taken two seats in the House of Representatives that were previously occupied by Democrats. Two more GOP representatives won’t interrupt the Democratic majority in the House — the balance is 78 Democrats, 69 Republicans and four independents — and won’t mean much if Democrats vote as a bloc, as expected in an election year.

New to the House will be Republicans Matthew Harrington in the Sanford-area District 19 seat and Lester Ordway in the Standish-area District 23.

However, the GOP wins are significant for other reasons. First, they show that Republicans — who had failed to flip a Democratic seat in every legislative special election in Maine during the past six years — have built upon their 2014 successes and significantly upped their get-out-the-vote ground game, which is key to winning special elections.

Second, the wins were in recently left-leaning or toss-up southern Maine districts, which in past years have been key battlegrounds in Republicans’ efforts to win majorities in the House, including in 2010 when a Republican wave captured majorities in both the House and Senate by winning traditionally Democratic seats.

You can count on the Maine Democratic Party to wage fierce campaigns next year to reclaim those seats, but it remains to be seen whether the party can continue its historically strong electoral ground game and whether party Chairman Phil Bartlett, who took over in November 2014, can ignite a fire behind his team and find a winning message for 2016.

Tuesday’s defeats were a poor start to that effort, and Bartlett will have to display far more of the political killer instinct and tactical savvy of his predecessor, Ben Grant, to lead the party to the kind of success Democrats experienced in 2012. Given the Republicans’ firm hold on northern Maine, it will take more than high voter turnout for a presidential election to produce Democratic majorities in the Maine House and Senate in 2016.

Democrats failed to secure winning margins by campaigning against Republican Gov Paul LePage, and Tuesday’s results affirm that LePage’s political machine remains the most formidable in Maine.

Tuesday’s elections for House and mayoral seats will become ammunition for proponents of next year’s ranked-choice voting referendum.

Harrington, Ordway and Ben Chin, the top vote getter in Lewiston’s mayoral race, failed to garner 50 percent of the total votes in their contests.

Sound familiar? Neither did LePage in his two elections, nor did numerous governors before him.

That really bothers some people.

A campaign to bring to Maine ranked-choice voting — a system in which voters choose more than one candidate, in order of preference, with the goal of the winner garnering more than 50 percent of the total — is well underway. Last month, a group called Ranked Choice Voting Maine submitted enough signatures to the secretary of state to put a question on the November 2016 ballot.

Bolstering the argument is the possibility that each of the aforementioned races — plus gubernatorial elections dating back well into the previous century — had more than two candidates, which likely fractured votes among candidates and swayed outcomes.

In both of Tuesday’s special elections, the second choices of voters who cast a ballot for independent candidates would have affected — and potentially reversed — the outcomes if a ranked-choice voting system were in place.

Given that Green Independent and unenrolled candidates have been more likely to siphon votes from Democrats — and the role that political strategists with ties to the Maine Democratic Party played in the success of the Question 1 election reform effort in 2015 — it is worth watching whether Tuesday’s events foreshadow a movement by Democrats toward ranked choice and perhaps a more aggressive campaign against it by the GOP.

The Yes on 1 campaign launched many months before the opposition, which likely contributed to its success. On Election Day 2016, we’ll be talking about a ranked-choice voting campaign that has lasted “well over a year.”

Progressive activist Chin did well in Lewiston’s mayoral race, but the city showed a stubborn red streak that could help Mayor Robert Macdonald in a runoff.

Tuesday’s result was good for Chin: He won 44 percent, but it wasn’t enough to avoid a runoff — likely to be held on Dec. 8 — against Macdonald, a conservative. Two other candidates were also Republicans. Add their shares of the vote to Macdonald’s and you get 55 percent.

Lewiston’s a historically Democratic stronghold with nearly 6,000 more Democrats than Republicans, but it just doesn’t vote that way anymore. Before voting finished Tuesday, Macdonald said many of those voters are older people who say Democrats “have screwed us.”

They’re Macdonald’s people. He won in suburban Lewiston; Chin dominated downtown.

Despite a good Republican standing, Chin may have an advantage: His employer, the Maine People’s Alliance, the progressive group running his campaign, could organize supporters for the next election, which will almost certainly see lower turnout.

“I’d put this room up against any other room in the city right now,” Chin said at his election night afterparty.

Ohio voted down a bad marijuana legalization question on Tuesday. It probably doesn’t mean a thing for Maine in 2016.

The state of Ohio soundly rejected marijuana legalization on Tuesday, and Scott Gagnon, a substance abuse counselor and Maine director for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization, said on his Bangor Daily News blog that it bodes badly for legalization supporters in Maine.

But that understates the big differences between the campaigns in Ohio and Maine, where advocates are gathering signatures for a 2016 referendum effort.

Ohio’s question would have created what Vice News has called a marijuana “oligarchy,” giving exclusive commercial cultivation rights to 10 farms owned by wealthy investors. One was singer Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees fame. Maine’s question would be more open-ended on this, giving state regulators the ability to limit cultivation licenses.

Let’s remember that Maine has been friendly to marijuana over the years: We decriminalized it in 1976, legalized it for medical use in 1999 and recently, it was legalized in Portland and South Portland as well. Ohio’s not as permissive.

All this doesn’t mean it’ll pass here in 2016, only that this is a very different scenario.

It’s clear that supporters of a $15 minimum wage in Portland over-leveraged themselves.

Portland is just as liberal now as it was last week, but Tuesday’s rejection of a $15-per-hour minimum wage proposal from the city’s Green Independent Party should prove one thing: Try to raise it willy-nilly and even progressives will smack you down.

Minimum wage increases poll well in Maine. A recent Critical Insights poll said 68 percent of voters support one, and the Maine People’s Alliance is pushing for a 2016 referendum to raise it to $12 statewide by 2020.

This year, the Portland City Council already voted to increase the wage to $10.68 by 2017 and peg it to inflation in the future. The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce wasn’t happy, saying the city shouldn’t go it alone.

But the Greens’ proposal would have put it at $15 by 2019. The business community launched a vigorous campaign against it led by Toby McGrath, a Democrat who managed President Barack Obama’s Maine campaigns in 2008 and 2012. The increase wasn’t even backed by Jim Wellehan, the president of shoe seller Lamey-Wellehan, a staunch advocate of wage increases.

There was an opportunity here, and $12 may have passed. But $15 really was just too high for Portland.

Maine’s voter turnout on Tuesday rocked! Well not really, but relatively speaking, it sort of did.

In an off-presidential year with little on the ballot to trigger a heavy turnout, predictions about how many voters would participate on Tuesday were low. After a 56 percent turnout for the 2014 election, which led the nation, even Secretary of State Matt Dunlap framed his estimate between 13 and 17 percent.

The secretary of state’s office won’t have official turnout numbers for several days, but according to the Bangor Daily News’ number crunchers, the turnout was about 23 percent with — prepare yourselves — “an 8 percent standard deviation.” That means 70 percent of municipalities were within 8 percentage points of 23 percent.

In other words, Maine voters exceeded expectations once again.

 



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