Baldacci redux

Remember John Baldacci?

I certainly do. This was a unique Maine politician who managed to somehow turn from one of the most popular political figures in the state when he was in the amoral swamp of Washington, D.C., into the most unpopular governor in recent Maine history.

When he entered Congress in 1994 amid the national conservative wave, he positioned himself as a common-sense moderate pragmatist, deeply rooted in the fabric of central Maine.

He seemed to be a relatively honest broker in Congress, interested in consensus and common ground. Exactly who and what the fine people in Maine’s second district love.

But distance, it seemed, was the key to Baldacci’s success. When he decided to run for governor in 2002, and Maine voters got to know him, the popularity that he so thoroughly enjoyed cratered.

At the end of the campaign season, the victory he won against Peter Cianchette, which should have been by double digits, was extremely narrow, and he failed to even achieve 50 percent of the vote. He even managed to lose southern Maine — to a Republican.

Still, Mainers gave Baldacci a shot, and as he began his term they rewarded him with a 72-percent approval rating. Maybe, Maine voters thought, that campaign just made him look bad. After all, we all really liked him when he was in Congress.

As his administration started to actually begin, that brief spike in approval evaporated. Part of this wasn’t really his fault, as dealing with the utter disaster left by independent Gov. Angus King on his way out the door — Baldacci was sworn into office in 2003 facing a budget gap of $1.2 billion – would probably make any governor take a popularity hit.

Alas, his plans, ideas and his style didn’t convince anyone that he was the man to clean up Maine government.

Maine’s unsustainable tax burden continued to drive businesses and citizens out of state, making the economic situation worse. The Pine Tree State continued to be one of the highest-taxed states in the Union.

But worse, he continued King’s particularly bad habit of spending indiscriminately, failing to confront problems that everyone knew we had. In fact, he made them worse.

There was the decision in 2003 to push Dirigo Health, a massive government-run program intended to insure 125,000 Mainers and be the first step toward a single-payer health care system in Maine, which has been a budgetary black hole ever since.

In the first two years of his administration, state spending on Medicaid alone was up by more than $196 million, while the state began to run up truly scandalous unpaid bills to hospitals.

These are hardly the only examples. Baldacci made it clear early on that he was unwilling to confront hard budgetary decisions and was more interested in pursuing pie-in-the-sky policy goals, while masking the fiscal tsunami that was building under the surface.

Maine voters saw this clearly. Against a monumentally weak Republican and token third party challenger, Baldacci was re-elected with 38 percent of the vote in 2006. Were Cianchette or a more broadly appealing Republican to have run, he would have likely lost his re-election campaign.

Baldacci’s second term was even less popular than his first, as taxes stayed high, spending continued to skyrocket, unemployment continued to rise, and Maine’s economy continued to decline.

Flash forward to the end of his eight years in the Blaine House, and the fading popularity had begun to turn into true contempt. Even members of Baldacci’s own party were becoming hostile to him and privately badmouthing his administration.

In October 2008, Rasmussen released a survey showing that Baldacci was rated “excellent” or “good” by only 27 percent of Maine voters. As he stood to deliver his final State of the State address, a full 52 percent of voters disapproved of his administration.

But now, Maine’s former governor believes that absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder, and the people of Maine are clamoring for a third Baldacci term.

Little does he realize that even despite the time away, he is currently polling in third place behind both Gov. Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler in recent polling.  He can barely muster 27 percent.

The people of Maine are less enamored with their former governor than he seems to think they may be. Say what you want about LePage, but he is beating Baldacci by nine points because he has chosen to risk his popularity on confronting problems, rather than shrinking from them like Baldacci. Even if you don’t like him, you have to respect that.

The Baldacci years are not something that anyone has any interest in repeating. So, as a Republican, I welcome him to the race whenever he decides he wants to announce.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.