AUGUSTA, Maine — Lisa Keim was optimistic on election night, but running against a three-term Democratic state senator, the Republican was realistic.
While watching for returns, the Dixfield challenger had a large map of her district in northern Oxford County and planned to color the towns she won red. Towns won by the millworker Sen. John Patrick would be blue.
Keim never needed the blue: She won 56 percent of votes and every town in the district, from a narrow victory in Patrick’s home base of Rumford to 14 of 17 votes in Magalloway Plantation on a remote part of the New Hampshire border.
“We’re going to need a new red pen,” Keim remembered saying.
Districts like this embody Republicans’ new strengths after an election where the president-elect, Donald Trump, took Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, winning one of four electoral votes in a first-time split with the rest of Maine, won by Democrat Hillary Clinton.
It’s a sign that the Republican insurgency into rural Maine during the era of Gov. Paul LePage may not wane when he leaves office in 2018, with this year’s re-election of U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and wins such as Keim’s in swing districts.
Democrats can point to some bright spots in the election — including the passage of progressive referendum questions — but they’ll need to perform better in rural Maine to take back Augusta in two years.
Republicans have made big gains in rural Maine — with Trump also benefiting — but three incoming lawmakers who flipped seats avoided talking about the top of the ticket.
By party registration, Maine is still a blue state. But Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett prefers to call it purple, citing this year’s election as proof.
Out of nearly 1 million registered Maine voters, there were 57,000 more Democrats than Republicans in Maine, up from 32,000 in 2004, according to state data. But that growth is in spite of the 2nd District, where there are just 6,000 more Democrats now compared with 14,000 then.
It illustrates a rural Democratic erosion that culminated in Trump’s win, foreshadowed by LePage’s trouncing of then-Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud in his own 2nd District in 2014 that propelled him to re-election and Poliquin’s two wins since then. LePage’s popularity in rural Maine has come after campaigns where he used his hawkish stances on welfare as a cudgel against Michaud.
Bennett chalked up his party’s improved standing to a focus on welfare, the economy and energy, hitting Democrats for being “marginalized” by a focus on social issues that “the voters don’t really care about.”
“As long as we’re talking about the issues that matter to Maine people, we’ll continue to do well,” he said.
However, Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett has hailed the party’s retention of a majority in the Maine House of Representatives and its narrowing of Republicans’ Senate, plus the passage of ballot questions to raise Maine’s minimum wage and assess a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 to fund education.
In the 2nd District, Trump won all but Hancock and Waldo counties and benefited from past Republican groundwork, but he also had a party-bending set of stances such as opposition to trade agreements — a popular stance in rural Maine, which has been rocked by mill closures.
“Basically, I think they’ve seen that they’ve been voting Democratic for a long time and their mills are dying,” Keim said. “Their communities are dying.”
But she and two other lawmakers who flipped seats said they stayed away from talking about the presidential race on the stump. Sen.-elect Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, a well-known former Maine attorney general who won a seat in a district that leans Republican, said Clinton provided headwinds for him.
“There was no way that she was going to connect with the average white working person in northern Maine,” he said. “I’m surprised she did as well as she did.”
Carpenter won Presque Isle easily, even though it voted for Trump and ousted two term Rep. Robert Saucier, a Democrat, for 22-year-old Rep.-elect Harold “Trey” Stewart III.
“I think a lot of people were kind of looking for some sort of person — any person — that they could securely get behind,” the Republican said. “It didn’t matter what party they were.”
Like Trump, LePage was once an outsider among a large group of Republican primary challengers. But the governor has given rise to a class of Republican insiders.
Trump was the first person elected president without experience in government or the military. In the 2010 primary, LePage was an outsider among a field of seven candidates largely unknown statewide. Four others came from the private sector, one was a political operative and the other a legislator.
But his era in power has created “a grouping of people who have some level of government experience,” according to Matthew Gagnon, CEO of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center. It evened the playing field against Democrats, who dominated state government for decades before.
Possible Republican gubernatorial candidates include Poliquin, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew. Party sources say Maine Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, is considering a run, but he didn’t return a request seeking comment.
On the Democratic side, outgoing House Speaker Mark Eves and Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond have floated runs, and Attorney General Janet Mills and Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap have been mentioned as possibilities.
More will surface: This time eight years ago, LePage was 10 months from announcing.
Kennebec County Democratic Committee Chair Rita Moran said she hopes either Mills or Dunlap run because of their 2nd District roots and wondered “which Republican Party” would show up — that of the legendary U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith or the bombastic Trump.
Either way, she said her party must get its 2018 campaign headquarters out of Portland.
“Does that affect the outcome? It doesn’t matter,” Moran said. “It affects the perception that the party isn’t invested in the 2nd District.”