Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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We have our first meaningful poll of the 2022 election season in Maine, and it shows that — as we all expected — the gubernatorial contest is going to be a dogfight. On Monday, Portland-based firm Digital Research, Inc. released the results of their “Critical Insights on Maine” survey, which showed Gov. Janet Mills with a marginal three-percentage point lead over former Gov. Paul LePage, 42 percent to 39 percent. This is within the survey’s 3.9 percent margin of error.

While that might sound like good news for Mills, most of the news for her and her party in this poll is bad.

To start with, Mills’ approval rating has taken a significant hit in the last six months. In the same poll last fall, her approval rating was roughly 55 percent, with 31 percent disapproving. Today, her approval stands at 46 percent, a drop of nine points, which puts her in the dreaded sub-50 percent “danger zone” for incumbents seeking reelection.

Interestingly enough, her numbers are fairly durable, all things considered. Joe Biden’s poll numbers in Maine are absolutely abysmal, with only 34 percent of voters approving of the job he is doing, while 57 percent disapprove. Furthermore, only 27 percent of Maine voters believe the state is headed in the right direction, while 41 percent say it is going in the wrong direction.

The fact that Mills is statistically tied with LePage and has an approval rating that is still as “high” as 46 percent, given those factors, is pretty remarkable. My only real explanation for this phenomenon is something I’ve been calling “misery credit.”

What is misery credit? Well, in my mind it is the residual benefit of the doubt lent to a politician — in this case Mills — who was forced to deal with a disaster — in her case the COVID-19 pandemic — that was not of her own making, and something none of us would want to deal with ourselves. I’ve heard a lot of people say, “no I didn’t agree with most of what she did, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be in her position, and I think she meant well,” or some version thereof.

But how far can a politician truly hope to get on a sentiment like that? Voter sympathy for having a tough job is great, but that kind of sentimentality isn’t exactly a reason to vote for someone. As the fall campaign begins in earnest and the negative ads start to roll in, I find it impossible to believe her numbers will end up all that different from Biden’s in the end.

Mainers are concerned, with increasing intensity, with things that directly affect their lives, and their pocketbooks. In this very same survey, concerns about the economy — specifically oil and utility prices, inflation, housing prices, the cost of living — are far and away the top issues on the minds of Maine people. Accompanying each of those concerns is a lot of pessimism about the future, with half of all voters believing that the economy will get worse over the next year.

Put another way, I just had to fill up my oil tank this week, and the total bill for that single oil purchase was higher than the $850 relief checks that Mills and Maine lawmakers are so proud of themselves for sending out.

The voter pessimism about the future is unlikely to be wrong, by the way. All around us, the signs of continued economic malaise are apparent. Inflation is up by 8.5 percent through March, and there is also a massive new accumulation of debt that is coinciding with inflation. Consumer debt and credit went up by 1.7 percent in the first quarter of 2022 to $15.84 trillion, which is a new (sad and undesirable) record. In the last three trading days, tech giants have lost more than $1 trillion in value. Mortgage interest rates are now rising, and rising fast, making the already shocking price of real estate all the more expensive. And to top it all off, there are genuine (and very realistic) fears of an upcoming recession.

So while Democrats are vainly pinning their hopes to the idea that the Supreme Court will rescue them from an absolute wipeout this November, the rest of the country, including Maine, remains focused on issues that they trust Republicans on more than Democrats.

That’s good news for LePage. It’s good news for Bruce Poliquin, as he seeks to unseat Jared Golden in the 2nd Congressional District. It is good news for Republicans up and down the state in their legislative races. And it is very, very bad for Janet Mills and fellow Democrats.


Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...