AUGUSTA, Maine — Ready or not, here comes another national political convention.
As Cleveland cleans up after the Republican gathering, Democrats are heading to Philadelphia for their version of partisan pomp punctuated by triumphant soundtracks.
Somewhere in the arena will be Maine’s 25 convention delegates, all in partisan hysteria just like everyone else, though the Pine Tree State’s influence on the event this year goes deeper than patriotic chants, anti-Trump rants and balloons.
We’re a Bernie state. The Maine caucuses seem like a such a long time ago, but remember in March when Bernie Sanders crushed Hillary Clinton with about 64 percent of the vote?
At the time, Clinton had not clinched the nomination and the fervor among Sanders’ supporters was potent. Their vitriol against Clinton — which bears shadows of some Republicans’ animosity toward Donald Trump — showed at the raucous Democratic State Convention in May. Former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, a Clinton surrogate, fended off jeers from Sanders supporters, and a debate ensued about changing superdelegate rules that Sanders backers said favored Clinton.
Since then, Clinton has secured the delegates she needs for the nomination, and Sanders has bowed out of the race. A coup by the underdog — mirroring a short-lived effort by “Never Trump” Republicans — is not going to happen. However, a roll-call vote on the floor of the national convention will give Maine a moment in the spotlight to declare its majority support for Sanders.
The count among Maine delegates? Sanders: 17. Clinton: 8.
We’re blue, but with a widening red streak. Democratic President Barack Obama won Maine handily in 2008 and 2012, but Maine Democrats have fared poorly in recent statewide elections, including losing control of the 2nd Congressional District in 2014, the governor’s office in 2010, and the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Sen. Olympia Snowe in 2012. In the latter two contests, a Democrat finished third.
There are still more registered Democrats in Maine than Republicans, but each party is outnumbered by independents, who make up some 37 percent of the electorate and have skewed Republican in recent elections, particularly in Gov. Paul LePage’s 2014 re-election.
A number of national pundits have declared the rematch for the 2nd Congressional District seat, between incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Emily Cain, a toss-up — despite Poliquin’s convincing win in 2014 with a conservative independent in the race.
Maine voters have skewed Democrat in presidential election years, at least as far as legislative races go, and have voted for every Democratic presidential candidate since 1992. But nothing is concrete in politics, especially with two historically unpopular major-party candidates in the race.
Sanders Democrats, independents and maybe some Trump-hating Republicans need reasons to support Clinton. She needs to unite voters behind her, and that’s a tough challenge for someone who has been in the public eye for decades.
Nancy Wanderer of Falmouth, a retired University of Maine law professor who will be a Clinton delegate in Philadelphia, has been Clinton’s friend since they attended Wellesley College together in the 1960s.
“Everyone seems to think they already know who she is and what she stands for,” said Wanderer. “A lot of people think she’s terrible. I hope she can find a way to get people to listen to what she says because so much of what they’ve heard is really what people who don’t like her say about her.”
In what many see as a “hold your nose and vote for the person you hate least” scenario, alternative candidates could factor into the outcome, as was the case when Ross Perot placed second in 1992, helping Bill Clinton win Maine against incumbent President George H.W. Bush. Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein could appeal to Sanders’ anti-establishment voters. Clinton and her allies will need to use the convention to win over Sanders voters — or at least convince them that a vote for Johnson or Stein would, in essence, be a vote for Trump.
Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said Clinton needs to communicate to those voters that she is close to Sanders ideologically.
“People need to understand the lengths to which Hillary is working with Bernie Sanders on many of the things that are so important to him and his supporters,” said Bartlett, who cited Clinton adopting Sanders’ free college tuition plan and his call for a public option in the health care system as examples.
Wanderer said Sanders can do as much or more to unite the party as Clinton can, at least inside the confines of a political convention.
“There’s only so much she can do unless Bernie wholeheartedly supports her,” she said. “He’s got to tell his supporters to vote for Hillary. If he says that, they might open up.”
State Rep. Deane Rykerson of Kittery, a Sanders supporter, said he will vote for Clinton but with reservations centered on her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.
“I find it unfortunate the way she handled it,” said Rykerson. “Even as a state legislator, I’m more careful with my emails than she was as secretary of state.”
Rykerson said Clinton needs to use the convention to spread her message and not just rail against Trump.
“It would be nice if she was able to establish her own credentials instead of just being anti-Trump,” he said. “It would be nice to be able to vote for someone positively as opposed to just voting against someone I’m opposed to.”
We ignited the fight over superdelegates. Sanders’ surprisingly strong showing against Clinton derives, in part, from his self-appointed role as champion of old-school liberal idealism. Like Trump, he has capitalized on virulent anti-government public sentiment to demand reforms that wrest power from professional politicians — even though he is one — and their cronies. His campaign successfully portrayed Clinton as part of an elite political class that has rigged the system in its favor.
He has pointed to the use of superdelegates — delegates who can cast their preference however they want, despite their state’s vote tally — to nominate Democratic presidential candidates as an example of that elitism. While history does not support that portrayal of the origin of superdelegates, the notion that Clinton and party insiders use them to stifle dissent has stuck.
Maine Democrats at the May convention became the first in the nation to ban superdelegates when they adopted an amendment to state party rules that will force Maine’s five superdelegates to abide by the results of the state’s caucuses at the national convention. Since then, another 20 states took similar action.
On Saturday, the convention’s rules committee considered changes proposed by Sanders’ backers to diminish the role of superdelegates in the Democrats’ nomination process. Amendments put forth by Sanders’ supporters failed, spurring protests inside and outside the meeting room. But the failed amendments received enough committee votes to prompt floor votes during the convention, ensuring that Sanders captures a lot of early attention at Clinton’s party.
Later, the committee approved a proposal that would compel most superdelegates to vote for the candidate who won their state but allow members of Congress, governors and party leaders to support the candidate of their choice.
“The big thing is that Maine started the superdelegate fight, and I anticipate that our delegation will be at the heart center of it,” said Democratic Maine Rep. Diane Russell of Portland, who led the charge in Maine and sponsored the amendment to the national convention.
“I feel like we lost the vote, but we won the debate,” Russell told The Washington Post after the meeting.
In her two primary runs for the Democratic nomination, Clinton has not connected with Maine voters, finishing far behind Barack Obama in 2008 and Sanders this year. The convention will give her one more chance to sell herself to a state whose demographics align poorly with the voting blocs she needs to win the presidency but that Democrats have been able to take for granted since 1996.