A version of this was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
The Maine Democratic Party’s convention begins Friday at the Cross Insurance Center, with the party saying roughly 1,000 in-person and virtual attendees are ticketed.
It kicks off a campaign season that starts in a brutally tough environment for the party, with President Joe Biden’s approval in the tank and polls showing an electorate deeply concerned with inflation and high costs.
Day 1 will be headlined by speeches from U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District. The rest of the big addresses will come on Saturday from Gov. Janet Mills, Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District and Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the virtual keynote speaker best known for managing the first Democratic impeachment of former President Donald Trump.
Here are three things we will be watching from the Queen City.
It will be a smaller affair than the Republican convention.
Optics are overrated in politics. Republicans held big 2020 rallies in support of Trump in Maine and elsewhere, deriding Biden for smaller crowds or virtual events. Biden still won. Optics are still the main reason that parties hold conventions in midterm years like this with no presidential nominating fight.
After Republicans piled 1,800 people into the Augusta Civic Center over the course of a two-day convention two weeks ago, Democrats will be holding a smaller event with COVID-19 protocols absent from their counterparts’ event. Proof of vaccination and masks are required. One reason attendance is lower on the Democratic side is because they charge for tickets, with last-minute ones now costing $50. In-person and virtual guests are about evenly split.
Elections are not going to be won or lost by the number of attendees at the party conventions. But Democrats have been suffering nationally from a deep voter enthusiasm gap with Republicans revved up for the November election. This gap gives Republicans something to point to along that trend line, regardless of whether this actually makes a difference by the fall.
How will Golden and Mills distinguish themselves?
The party’s two most vulnerable big-name politicians have staked much of their time in office in breaking from fellow Democrats on key issues. Golden opposed the American Rescue Plan and has voted against gun control. Mills is perhaps a more conventional Democrat, but she also warded her party off from exploring gun control measures and has vetoed some progressive priorities.
Especially in this environment, both Golden and Mills figure to build a large part of their electoral case around distinguishing themselves from other Democrats. The congressman is in a tighter spot because he represents a district won twice by Trump with former Rep. Bruce Poliquin running to oust him in 2022. Mills gets to benefit from the huge pool of Democratic voters in southern Maine in her race with former Gov. Paul LePage.
Party conventions are about rallying loyalists rather than challenging them. But these initial campaign addresses from Golden and Mills will give us a good idea about their early tactics as they get ready to face the uncertain world of the general electorate.
A leaked Supreme Court decision on abortion rights could give Democrats a jolt.
Republicans needled Democrats on Friday morning by putting up “Biden Mills Gas Hike” signs outside the Bangor arena. (High gas prices are also an issue in other countries and red states.) But it underscores Republicans’ desire to talk about the economy, which has been a top polling issue here and nationwide.
That could be changing after the leaked decision showing a Supreme Court ready to overturn abortion rights. A national poll from Monmouth University released this week showed abortion drawing even with the economy at the top of a list of issues of concern. We should hear from Maine Democrats deeply concerned about this as well at the convention.
Maine is a swing state but it has always polled solidly in favor of abortion rights, something prominent Republicans have been reticent to address in the last week or so. It is a reminder that the election is a long way away and the hierarchy of issues going into November is unclear.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story implied Democrats were charging more than Republicans for convention tickets. The fees were similar.