Maine’s reputation as a bastion of liberalism is built, largely, on two things.
The first is the uninterrupted streak of six consecutive presidential elections in which the Democratic candidate captured Maine and all of its electoral votes.
The second is the unquestioned dominance of the Democratic Party in the state Legislature, which until recently had a nearly unbroken record of control over both the Maine House and Senate.
Yet this perception of Maine is not reflective of the state’s political sensibilities.
It is certainly true that Republicans have had some bad luck at the presidential level. But dealing with Ross Perot and a recession in 1992, a universally popular Bill Clinton in 1996, a Republican nominee who was a southern evangelical social conservative in a northern secular libertarian-minded state in 2000 and 2004, and not even contesting the race in 2008 and 2012 will do that to a party.
Likewise the Maine Legislature remained constantly in the hands of the Democrats largely due to the unparalleled political machine assembled by Speaker John Martin and a never-ending culture of failure in the Republican Party. When one side knows how to organize, assemble coalitions and interest groups, recruit high-quality candidates and make use of hyperlocal issues while the other side can barely tie its shoes political dominance can happen.
The reality is, Maine is simply not a stronghold of the political left.
Take, for example, this interesting fact: In Maine elections, the Maine Democratic Party has not won a majority of voters in a statewide election since 1988. You read that right. It has been 26 years since a Democratic candidate for statewide office has won more than half the voters here. In contrast, Republican candidates have won more than 50 percent on six occasions, and they got incredibly close two more times (Susan Collins getting 49.18 percent in 1996, and Paul LePage getting 48.5 percent this year).
How about another striking fact: winning majorities notwithstanding, the Democrats have lost 14 out of the last 16 statewide elections. The two that they won were by Gov. John Baldacci, neither of which he won with a majority. In fact, Baldacci saw his support drop from 47 percent of the vote in 2002 to 38 percent of the vote in 2006.
At the same time, the Democrats’ grip on the legislature, which for so long has been driven by organization and political machinery, has faltered. The Maine Senate now routinely bounces back and forth between parties, and even when it doesn’t it is frequently split nearly in half, and the battle to hold onto control of the Maine House is a constant one.
Indeed, seeing all of the candidates on the Republican side who came close to winning this year — Senate candidates Cary Weston in Bangor, Patti Gagné in Lewiston, and Cathy Manchester in Gray, who looks to have only lost by seven votes — this year’s conservative tsunami could very well have been more striking.
The problem for the left goes deeper, though. There is a fundamental political realignment afoot.
LePage won Androscoggin County with 56 percent of the vote, and he took with him towns that hadn’t voted Republican for generations. Androscoggin County has long been the strongest of Democratic firewalls. It’s frequently the only county to vote Democratic in statewide elections, and it offers the left a second base where it can run up votes outside of Portland.
Yet, LePage won Androscoggin with a plurality in 2010 and with a strong majority in 2014. This election was the first time a Republican had won a majority of Androscoggin County voters since 1950. For those of us challenged at math, that is the end of a 64-year drought.
It was no accident. Androscoggin has long held conservative beliefs while maintaining its allegiance to the Democratic Party and its candidates. Here, party affiliation has been a heritage passed down through generations, particularly in French Catholic communities. It was a virtually unbreakable social connection, very similar to what you see in states like Arkansas or West Virginia, where voters are incredibly conservative, yet maintain strong Democratic ties.
Being from Lewiston originally, being Franco-American, and having a style and agenda that speak to voters there allowed LePage him to overcome the inertia of party heritage and make his case. When he did, he won. And it wasn’t just him. Gagné’s near win in Lewiston, and Eric Brakey’s unexpected Senate win in Auburn indicated that this phenomenon is not unique to LePage.
In the aftermath of this election, liberals across Maine need to do some soul searching. What they are selling is simply not connecting with voters across the state, and they are in danger of seeing a reversal of the Muskie realignment that began in the 1950s.
Hubris and a refusal to listen will doom them to ultimate failure.