Lewiston’s past vs. its future

In his race for mayor of Lewiston, Maine People’s Alliance activist Ben Chin was fond of characterizing the contest as a battle of generations. In an article on the election in The New York Times, one of Chin’s supporters spelled it out in plain terms. “Macdonald is the past,” he said. “Chin is the future.”

I suppose it makes sense he and some of his supporters would see things that way. After all, Chin is young and vibrant, and his opponent, Lewiston Mayor Bob Macdonald, is 68, a former Marine, a Vietnam veteran, and a retired police detective.

Unfortunately for Chin, the future didn’t arrive Tuesday night. Macdonald easily won his campaign for re-election, 53 percent to 47 percent.

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald after winning a third term as mayor Tuesday night in a runoff election against Ben Chin. Photo by Amber Waterman.

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald after winning a third term as mayor Tuesday night in a runoff election against Ben Chin. Photo by Amber Waterman.

Macdonald was able to hold off “the future” despite running a rather quiet campaign. The mayor raised just over $5,000, didn’t run a traditional campaign and didn’t even have a campaign website.

Chin, on the other hand, raised nearly $90,000, had a campaign reminiscent of a race for statewide office run by a professional liberal campaign apparatus (the Maine People’s Alliance, his employer), and engaged in an aggressive media battle.

Liberal activists from across the state, organized and directed by the Maine People’s Alliance, descended into Lewiston for Chin. They built a national fundraising network. They created a sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation.

Ben Chin. Photo by Amber Waterman.

Ben Chin. Photo by Amber Waterman.

They threw everything they had into this race, and they still couldn’t beat a guy who appeared uninterested in campaigning at all.

That is not only a stunning rebuke of the Maine People’s Alliance and its political machine, but — perhaps more importantly — it is a stunning rebuke of a certain style of politics.

Indeed, the things that were viewed as advantages for Chin — youth, money, and organizational muscle — were perhaps, at the end of the day, disadvantages.

People in Maine, and particularly in the battleground territory of Lewiston, aren’t particularly fond of slick politicians, outsiders trying to influence their elections, or big money trying to buy their votes.

Lewiston voters respect people who are authentic, have contributed to and are known in their community, speak to the issues that they care about, and reach them on a personal level.

In this election, that was Macdonald. He ran a relaxed, front porch-style campaign. He campaigned a little, but preferred to talk directly to his constituents and let his record in the community, including as mayor, speak for him. It paid dividends.

In support, the Maine Republican Party went as “all in” on this race as the Maine People’s Alliance, providing on-the-ground support needed to win the race. Their efforts should not go unnoticed.

More importantly, though, recent elections in Androscoggin County are indeed proving to be about the past and the future. But not in the way that Chin and the Maine People’s Alliance seem to think.

Lewiston, and frankly all of Androscoggin County, have been the single most reliable and important constituency for the Democratic Party in Maine for the last 100 years.

Even in elections where Democrats were wiped out statewide, you’d frequently see Androscoggin County and its anchor in Lewiston and Auburn go for Democrats.

Prior to Paul LePage winning the county in 2010, the last time a Republican gubernatorial candidate had carried Androscoggin was 1950, when Republican Governor Frederick Payne won his re-election by 20 points.

Even today, registered Democrats drastically outnumber Republicans in Lewiston by two to one.

Yet in both Lewiston and Auburn, local politics are increasingly trending Republican.

Why? Because voters in this area of the state have had an ethno-religious connection to the Democratic Party, built on the foundations of Maine and its division between patrician English Protestant settlers, who grew into the Republican elite that ruled Maine for a century, and the French Catholic underclass, who became opposition Democrats.

In the past, party allegiance was much more about cultural affiliations and the party machines they spawned. That is why these generally conservative voters have spent generations voting for what is today a liberal party.

As both parties began to sort themselves into more ideologically coherent groups, it was inevitable that Lewiston, Auburn and all of Androscoggin County would eventually “turn red,” as voting behavior began to reflect the politics of the people.

The only real surprise was that it took so long.

The Androscoggin valley is now becoming a stronghold of conservative politics, and what you saw on Tuesday was indeed an example of the past fighting against the future.

And in that fight, the Democratic machine politics of the past lost to what will almost certainly be Lewiston’s conservative politics of the future. Here’s to the changing of the guard.

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.