AUGUSTA, Maine — In this political era, campaigning virtually never ends, but an old maxim still holds true: Campaigning that matters begins on Labor Day.
That seems like a ridiculous statement when applied to what Maine voters have seen.
— Democrat Emily Cain launched her rematch campaign against Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin in March 2015, just four months after she lost to him in November 2014.
— Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been positioning for presidential runs for at least four years.
— Signature gathering for the five citizen-initiated questions on the November ballot began last year.
— In State House politics, ramifications on lawmakers’ next election are always under consideration.
— Local candidates have been knocking on doors in their districts for months.
Still, things are set to change markedly in the 63 days between now and when Mainers vote on Nov. 8 — though you can cast an early ballot starting Oct. 9 if you want to get it over with.
If you’re one of probably the majority of people who have half-followed politics or shut it out altogether, there will be no escaping it now: Here come the lawn signs; here come the advertisements.
Here’s a primer on the state of state politics today.
All 186 seats in the Legislature are up for election. There are five referendum questions and a $100 million bond issue. Both of Maine’s congressional seats are due to be refilled. We’re electing a president. It’s a lot to keep track of, so here are some details.
— Legislative elections. There’s a lot at stake here. Currently, Republicans hold a 20-15 majority in the Senate, and Democrats in the House of Representatives outnumber Republicans 78-69, with four independents, three of whom usually vote with the Democrats. Since January 2015, the split majorities have afforded both parties the power to block any bill or achieve a two-thirds vote — which is required for emergency legislation or overriding any of Gov. Paul LePage’s scores of vetoes — thus demanding bipartisanship.
BDN analyses of the races indicate that Democrats, who traditionally fare well in Maine in presidential election years because of spikes in turnout — could make gains in both chambers. If Democrats end up with control of both chambers, they’ll be able to stifle LePage’s policy ambitions as the legacy-minded Republican governor enters his final two years in office. Another possibility — though it’s far from a probability — is that it could force more collaboration between the legislative and executive branches, which LePage and leaders from both parties have repeatedly said they crave.
— Ballot questions. The five citizen-initiated ballot questions would legalize, tax and regulate recreational marijuana; create a 3 percent tax on income over $200,000 to benefit public education; require background checks for private gun sales; raise Maine’s minimum wage to $12 by 2020, after which it will be indexed to inflation; and implement ranked-choice voting in Maine. There’s also a $100 million bond question for transportation infrastructure, which would leverage an additional $137 million in federal funds.
Most of those votes could go either way, except for maybe the bond; Maine voters consistently support infrastructure spending.
More interesting to many political observers is what effect these questions will have on turnout and what that means for legislative and presidential elections. The gun background check is likely to generate an impassioned turnout from the opposition — not unlike a bear-baiting referendum did among sportsmen and conservatives in 2014. That would be good primarily for Republicans, though the yearn for background checks among Democrats is strong. Conversely, Democrats and supporters of raising the minimum wage think Question 4 could pull out Democrats and young voters in droves.
Those factors would carry more weight in a nonpresidential-election year, which is what drives turnout more than anything.
— Congressional races. In the 1st Congressional District in southern and coastal Maine, Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree faces a challenge from Republican Mark Holbrook. Pingree is widely thought to be safe in the Democratic-leaning district.
The 2nd Congressional District rematch between Poliquin and Cain is much more interesting and probably the race to watch on Election Day. Though Cain lost by about 6 percentage points to Poliquin in 2014 despite a conservative third-party candidate being in the race, the presidential election could pull out enough Democrats to make this year’s contest competitive. But considering Mainers have long favored congressional incumbents, it’s probably Poliquin’s race to lose.
— The presidential election. Neither of the major-party presidential nominees fared well in the Maine caucuses earlier this year; the Pine Tree State chose Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz over Donald Trump.
Maine has voted for Democrats in presidential elections since 1992 but there is evidence the state is shifting more conservative, such as Poliquin’s win in 2014 and LePage’s victories in 2010 and 2014. Most polls still have Maine likely to choose Clinton, though Trump has visited here three times this year in a bid to take at least one of Maine’s four electoral college votes. If he does, it would be a first for Maine, which is one of only two states — Nebraska is the other — where it’s possible to split its electoral votes.
You can’t escape
Unless you turn off your television and radio and stay offline for the next two months, you’re in for a probably near-record number of advertisements. That’s driven by the sheer number of elements on the Maine ballot and changes to campaign finance rules — such as the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court — which led to millions more dollars flowing into political campaigns nationally.
But don’t fret. Election Day will be upon us in a blink and before you know it you’ll be hoisting your snow shovel — though some politicians are already making noise about the 2020 presidential election.