AUGUSTA, Maine — It may have been an off-year for elections, but 2019 in Maine politics was full of transitions and it set the stage for contentious campaigns and policy fights at the federal, state and local levels.
This time last year, the Bangor Daily News looked ahead to the stories that would dominate the headlines in 2019, led by new Democratic control of state government, the issues likely to affect high-stakes campaigns taking shape ahead of the presidential election year in 2020 and the former governor’s hold on his party. Here’s where they leave us going into next year.
Democrats’ newfound reign in Augusta was marked by the fights they picked with Republicans, the grand bargains they sought and what didn’t move forward. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills promised a “new day” when she was sworn in almost a year ago. She and her party spent most of the year figuring out where to spend their political capital. The state became the first in the nation to ban single-use foam containers and updated its ren ewable energy portfolio goals.
In that first category, Mills introduced ambitious bills to expand abortion access and repeal religious and personal exemptions for school vaccinations. Her $8 billion two-year budget proposal prompted protests from Republicans by increasing baseline spending 11 percent, though the final, consensus product was shaved down from that mark only minimally.
At the same time, many progressives wanted more. Mills kept them at bay by adhering to a campaign pledge to not raise taxes. She came out in January to say “the people have spoken” on expanding gun background checks in a reference to the failed 2016 referendum on the subject and a not-so-subtle signal to Democrats who sought to push that issue.
She cut a deal with gun-rights advocates on a measure that circumvented a Democratic “red flag” bill, while Republicans leveraged votes to get a say in an overhaul of the worker compensation system. Bipartisan efforts secured paid time off for the majority of the state’s workforce after progressives floated a more aggressive referendum proposal.
Not every move worked out for Mills. Republicans blocked three bond proposals on broadband, conservation and infrastructure when during a special session in August, earning them a “party of no” nickname from Mills. Only a transportation bond — consistently popular among Maine voters — made it onto the November ballot.
The former Republican governor left office in January, but he is still the most important figure in grassroots party politics. Former two-term Gov. Paul LePage was teasing a potential 2022 run against Mills before he left office in early January. He helped the incumbent Maine Republican Party chair survive a challenge after a rough 2018 election cycle, went to Florida for the winter and got a summer bartending job in Boothbay Harbor.
LePage popped up in public a few times in 2019, doing stump work for President Donald Trump, fundraising for a since-abandoned referendum bid to keep noncitizens from voting in local elections and endorsing candidates in three different types of contentious races.
He never officially endorsed candidates in a contested primary as governor, but he picked former state Rep. Dale Crafts of Lisbon Falls in a three-way primary for the right to face U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, in Maine’s 2nd District. He backed U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in her nationally targeted 2020 race after criticizing her as governor. He endorsed Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Bradley, in a 2020 primary against state Sen. Kim Rosen of Bucksport, who is backed by Republican legislative leaders.
It could all be read as an attempt at party-building from LePage as he eyes a return bid in 2022. During his tenure, he counted Republican legislators as his greatest frustration. He appears to be trying to hold the party together while shaping it ahead of then.
There is a clear Democratic favorite to take on Collins. Beating her is another matter and a primary is on. The Democratic field running to take on Collins in 2020 sits at four, but only one — Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon — has seen the level of national fundraising, endorsements and attacks that come with being positioned as a Democratic frontrunner.
Collins only officially said last week that she was running for re-election, but that decision looked a given since she has already raised more money than any politician in Maine history. Gideon out-raised her during the summer. An unprecedented total $10 million has already been spent on advertising in the race, according to data from Advertising Analytics.
Democrats have made targeting Collins one of their top priorities after her 2018 vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Republicans have coalesced around her. Her challengers see hope in her falling statewide approval rating, as measured by Morning Consult, but she led Gideon handily in the last poll of the race in June.
Before then, Gideon faces a June primary with progressive lobbyist Betsy Sweet, Saco lawyer Bre Kidman and former Google executive Ross LaJeunesse of Biddeford. Green activist Lisa Savage of Solon and independent Danielle VanHelsing of Sangerville have filed to run in what could be a ranked-choice voting race next year.
Maine’s new congressman tried to focus on Maine issues, but his vote and reasoning for impeaching the president may be a defining moment. After a narrow win in a 2018 ranked-choice race over incumbent Bruce Poliquin in the 2nd District, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, spent his first year introducing bills including those that would give a boost to small businesses and fishing safety — safe issues in Maine.
In July, he tried to keep the focus on Maine issues by saying talk of impeaching President Donald Trump was among the “BS” topics that drive constituents in his district — which backed Trump in 2016 — “insane.” Yet, he found himself in the spotlight as one of the most-watched House members as House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry took steam.
This month, Golden was the only House member to split his vote on the impeachment articles. His reasoning for supporting an abuse of power charge but not an obstruction of Congress charge hinged on a legal argument — by not taking Trump to court for refusing to cooperate with the inquiry, the House had not exhausted all options before impeachment.
The three Republicans running a primary to face Golden in 2020 — Crafts, former LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett and former state Sen. Eric Brakey — have been rushing to embrace the president. They and their party have hammered Golden for the vote. Some Democrats may perceive the split as not going hard enough on the president. It’s sure to be a major wedge issue in a nationalized campaign next year.
There were no high-profile referendums in 2019 under one-party rule. That will change. The LePage era was defined by referendums that put stymied progressive policy initiatives to voters. The state got Medicaid expansion, ranked-choice voting and recreational marijuana from them. Other referendums were floated during the Mills era, but she compromised on sick leave and signed a bill allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives.
This will change in 2020. Opponents of the vaccine law put a people’s veto effort on the March ballot and opponents of Central Maine Power’s proposed hydropower corridor through western Maine are working to put a question that would kill the project on the November statewide ballot.
Mills stuck her neck out in February to back the politically unpopular corridor. Legislative attempts to stall the project were defeated by a coalition of most Republicans and some Democrats who agreed with her. Both of these efforts rebounded from the governor’s actions and could result in the first popular rebukes of her administration in 2020.
Portland’s former mayor lost his re-election after conflict with the City Council, but it was a relative outsider who won the seat. Former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling’s tenure was marked by friction between him and his council aligned with City Manager Jon Jennings, sparking a conversation about what the role of a mayor should be in Maine’s largest city.
Those issues provided a backdrop for the November election, which was chiefly a race between Strimling, City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau and Kate Snyder, the former school board chair. In a bit of a surprise, Snyder won the ranked-choice race on the first count overwhelmingly.
She did it by positioning herself as a facilitator in contrast to the movement-building style Strimling used to try to pressure councilors. But Strimling tried something similar before hitting a wall with other elected officials. We will see how Snyder evolves in the bully pulpit.