It’s difficult to overstate just how horrible last night went for Maine Republicans. Truly, the 2022 Maine elections will go down in history as one of the most humiliating defeats ever suffered by the Maine Republicans. For the next two years, Republicans in Augusta will be mere spectators to one-party rule. A few days ago, they were plotting which of them would ascend to Speaker of the House, but now the few GOPers who remain are an endangered species, operating an insurgency from remote outposts in the Great North Woods and Aroostook County. At times like these, it’s traditional and altogether fitting for the routed party to conduct an autopsy of sorts and search out the root causes. Were Maine Republicans capable of such introspection, they might not find themselves in this predicament in this first place. So let us join the crowd of Monday Morning Quarterbacks to hazard a few guesses as to what went wrong last night with a view to charting a path for the future.
THE GOVERNOR’S RACE
First, on the gubernatorial race: Gov. Janet Mills soundly defeated former Gov. Paul LePage by 14 points. Could be more when all is said and done. As results continue to come it, it appears that LePage underperformed both his 2014 vote total and Republican Shawn Moody’s in 2018. At the same time, Mills added 30,000 voters from her last election. That’s mandate territory. Just disastrous for Republicans. Clearly something went terribly, terribly wrong with the LePage campaign, and because most Republicans hitched their wagons in some form or fashion to LePage, the down ballot consequences were ruinous.
It’s easy to second guess a campaign from the cheap seats, but the most basic and fair criticism is the LePage campaign never developed a strong central message. Yes, LePage was a fantastic conservative governor whose policies made life better for everyone in the state, except for the parasitic political class. And this time around, the governor had strong policies on energy, on taxes, on the drug epidemic, and on stopping the insane progressive projects emanating from Augusta. But his campaign never crystallized around a simple, memorable message. Ask yourself now, what was his campaign’s message in a nutshell? Beats me.
The chief takeaway from his campaign seemed to be: here’s the new and improved LePage 2.0, kinder, nicer, and totally averse to the unearned media that made him a sensation in 2010. Whereas the LePage of 2010 and 2014 achieved stardom by hurling rhetorical Molotov cocktails at progressives, LePage 2.0 seemed overly controlled—timid in the face of an incumbent whose chief accomplishment was an authoritarian, unscientific lockdown of the state.
Mills ruined lives and livelihoods by shutting down Maine’s economy, and she pilfered taxpayer funds to buy off every constituency in the state. LePage had more right to be angry with her than he did with Libby Mitchell or Mike Michaud. But we saw no righteous indignation this cycle. When the old LePage did come out in the debates, he awkwardly accused Mills of lying, often without an explanation. The campaign website, JanetMillsLied.com, felt like an unnatural act of desperation, which is saying something coming from the guy who wrote half the articles to which the site links.
Even good policies can be poorly messaged. LePage told us about the threat that Maine farmland would soon be colonized with solar panels. We heard that Maine’s pension fund reversing the decision to divest from oil and natural gas companies – less than a drop in the bucket of global finance – would somehow fight inflation. Sure, solar subsidies create malinvestment and ESG pension funds drive up energy costs, but these are not issues that resonate with voters. LePage’s campaign never landed on a simple rationale for supporting him, or, perhaps more importantly, for rejecting Mills. Would a brasher LePage have changed the outcome? Who knows. But a muzzled LePage never put a dent in Mills.
Compare that with the Mills’ campaign, whose central message sang through in every campaign ad: competent, effective, bipartisan leadership. Who cares whether it’s true? Voters bought into the idea that everyone in Maine would have died of COVID-19 if Mills hadn’t unilaterally seized emergency power, shutdown the state, and crushed her critics with the power of the state. The LePage campaign ceded that argument and allowed Mills’ message of Pandemic Era competence to broadcast unresisted. The only explanation for this is some pollster told a consultant Mills’ pandemic policies had broad support in Maine. Even if that’s true, it’s a sign a campaign needs to attack and change public opinion rather than avoid the subject. Why, for example, did LePage not have a massive press conference with the health care workers who lost their jobs because of Mills’ unscientific, authoritarian, anti-Christian health care worker vaccine mandate? Why not bring Rick Savage, whose business Mills destroyed over COVID-19, out on the campaign trail every weekend? Everyone in Maine suffered because of Mills’ bumbling, authoritarian approach to managing the pandemic – she was the anti-thesis of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – but LePage left that point unmade.
The LePage campaign also failed to effectively leverage help from outside allies. In the closing weeks of the race, Maine Families First PAC spent more than $800,000 on ads that were harming his opponent and motivating his base. The ads drew attention to radical left-wing material the Maine Dept. of Education was recommending for Maine elementary classrooms, including at least one book that featured cartoons of children having sex. Maine Wire columnist Sam Patten says this issue was a distraction; I respectfully disagree. Against the backdrop of miserably low student test scores, thanks to illiberal lockdowns commanded by his opponent, LePage could have capitalized on the idea that a cabal of education bureaucrats and unionized teachers has been brainwashing children with left-wing hypersexualized poppycock rather than teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic.
The playbook Virginia Gov. Glen Youngkin used to win office in 2021 was served up on a silver platter. He should have asked Mills during a debate whether she recommended “Gender Queer” for Maine schools after finding a few copies on Eliot Cutler’s bookshelf… Let the chattering classes chew on that for a few cycles rather than dissecting the twelfth iteration of his abortion stance. Ok, perhaps he shouldn’t have gone that blue, but you get the point. 2010 LePage would have found a provocative way to channel the angst and furor of conservative and moderate parents over what’s happening in schools. Alas, LePage 2.0 dared not go there. He called the book with the cartoons of children having sex “fine.”
LePage also struggled to articulate a coherent position on abortion. Which is stunning considering this was the first election following the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. Dobbs effectively sent all abortion policies back to the states, so this was naturally going to be a predictable topic. LePage’s public position, arrived at painfully through four debates, was as follows: I’m personally pro-life, but I’m not going to manifest that in any policies, including by blocking taxpayer funding for abortions through MaineCare, although I oppose taxpayer funding for abortions. This came off as consultant speak for: “I don’t want to alienate pro-abortion women.” The opposite became true, with many pro-life conservatives wondering what being pro-life means if you’re not going to oppose taking money from pro-life people’s paychecks to fund abortions. Whether a more robust pro-life position would have helped LePage is unknowable, but his actual position did nothing to stem the tide of post-Dobbs voters in Maine’s blue strongholds, and the wishy-washy politician speak depressed his Christian supporters.
With that being said, every conservative in the state of Maine owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Paul LePage. Twelve years ago, the Maine Republican Party’s operation was in shambles. On the strength of LePage’s gritty charisma, and under the competent leadership of Maine GOP Executive Director Jason Savage, that organization was professionalized and rebuilt. Yesterday’s vote shows yet another infusion of new blood and energy is needed to make the Maine GOP effective at recruiting candidates and turning out votes. But consider where we’d be if LePage decided he’d rather not enter the fray in 2010 and stayed at Mardens. If the Friendly Compromise Republicans (which at the time included this writer) had had their way in that primary, we’d have had four or eight years of Charlie Baker-style Big Government Republicanism under Les Otten or Peter Mills. The Leviathan cannot be managed but must be dismantled, and LePage understood that. During his first term in office, nearly a quarter million Mainers were on Food Stamps; today, less than 170,000 are. LePage also managed to shrink the size of the state government workforce in Maine – a heroic accomplishment. None of that happens without a tenacious governor who will fight, and Maine continues to benefit from those victories.
The lesson seems obvious: unapologetic conservative fighters win elections and policy victories, while limp wristed Republican squishes lose, and lose badly. Which brings us to the Republican legislators.
Republican State lawmakers in recent weeks were already jockeying for Speaker of the House. Talk about counting your eggs. Instead of refining the invite list for a lobbyist happy hour in Augusta, they’re now relegated to utter irrelevance. Sure, they might have added a few seats in the House, but their overall position is weaker because Mills no longer faces the prospect of re-election. Moreover, the threat of Republican gains two years from now is laughable. Why should Democrats fear a Republican operation that failed to defend Lewisont-Auburn or send Troy Jackson to early retirement? Mills could reverse course on her campaign promises, hike the income tax to 10 percent, encircle Swan’s Island with offshore windmills, legalize fourth trimester abortion, and put a Planned Parenthood in every county, and I’m not sure Republicans in Augusta would be able to win majorities two years from now.
The dwindling few Republicans who will inhabit the State House this next legislative session need a clean slate. Otherwise, they might as well spare taxpayers the per diem and stay at home. Anyone remotely connected to the old leadership must step back and allow a new generation of conservatives to lead the party. This includes staffers in the House and Senate GOP offices, if any are left once the new class of Democrats gets done cutting minority staff positions. I know the talent pool for Republican operatives is shallow in Maine, but we’re at rock bottom here. Hire away a couple of Denny’s workers and some College Republicans – anyone who hasn’t been infected with that beaten-dog loser mentality so characteristic of Republicans in Augusta.
As for new leadership, placing young, media savvy, strategically minded conservatives in charge is the only possible path to becoming relevant again. The only bargaining chip Republican lawmakers will have this session is the potential to allow Mills and Democratic leadership to tout some awful piece of legislation as “bipartisan.” It’s not much, but it’s all they have. And that chip should be jealously guarded by a unified minority. You’re not going to get a unified minority with 60-year-old Bush Republicans who like to dine with Pharma lobbyists at the Senator Inn. The time of the Baby Boomer Republican is over; we’re reaping the fruit of their happy-go-lucky incompetence now. It’s time for them to step aside. Young conservatives and libertarians ought to demand it.
Former Rep. Bruce Poliquin is a victim of his own success. Unlike most Members of Congress, including Rep. Chellie Pingree, Poliquin never used his office to enrich himself. Quite the contrary. The man has spent oodles of his own money trying to put himself in a place where his boundless energy might serve the public good. He’s had an extraordinary career, and I truly believe his heart, like LePage’s, is in the right place. But he wasn’t the right fit for the Second Congressional District this time around. The Poliquin campaign understood that, perhaps, and tried to bind him publicly with LePage, but that strategy sank for reasons already mentioned.
For all his flaws, Rep. Jared Golden fits the blue-collar identity of the district much better. And Golden has smartly avoided – or been allowed to avoid – casting votes in favor of unpopular Democratic policies. Also, I don’t know if you heard, but he has tattoos. Two years from now, Maine Republicans ought to find a non-political candidate with private sector experience within in the district. A blue-collar conservative with solid roots in a northern Maine community would present a formidable challenge to a back-bench Michaud clone whose only accomplishment is sprinting away for his own president’s policies.
In the First Congressional District, there’s really nothing to say. Ed Thelander made a solid effort against a crusty multi-millionaire incumbent with deep ties to progressive donor network. Compounding Thelander’s disadvantages is a Portland-based media that is so hopelessly incapable of disinterested neutrality that no reporter ever mentioned Pingree still happens to be receiving up to a million dollars a year from Paloma Partners, her billionaire ex-husband S. Donald Sussman’s hedge fund. You think a Republican with that on his financial disclosure would have skated? Only if, as I suspect, there aren’t any reporters in Maine capable of finding financial disclosures.
The first district is no place for a conservative. Indeed, Thelander would probably have fared better in greater Portland if he were a former performer at those “family friendly” drag shows rather than a former Navy Seal. A serious country would have welcomed a man of his stature and seriousness, but alas we are not living in one. Next time around, perhaps Mrs. Thelander should take a run and see whether a charismatic conservative Venezuelan immigrant can strike a chord in Northern Massachusetts.
WHERE TO NOW?
Any Republican – and especially a conservative Republican – enters Maine politics at a serious disadvantage because of a political philosophy that effectively prevents him from leveraging the Nanny State to buy off voters. Not so for Mills and Democratic lawmakers. Mills sprinkled taxpayer money on every favored constituency like she was Whitey Bulger buying groceries for housewives in South Boston. She paid off electricity bills for small businesses and non-profits. She doled out 850 bucks to every Mainer. She funneled cash by the truckload into the sprawling web of non-profits that mostly exists to keep term-limited Democrats employed. She gave some cash to the Lobsterman’s Association, to childcare providers, to college kids, to the poor and the not poor. Everyone got money from Janet Mills this year. Of course, it wasn’t her money, not even money she’d accumulated by careful stewardship of the state. It was all debt-financed imaginary money handed out by a delusional federal government. The bill for all of that will come due – and soon. But none of that matters when you’re trying to win an election.
The point is, all of that vote buying didn’t happen overnight. It was planned months, even years ago, built into the legislative plans of Augusta Democrats and coordinated to arrive right around Election Day. An example: The Democrats planned all along to send out those inflation payments with a campaign-style letter from Mills. Republicans feared this might happen, but rather than make a fuss and demand faster electronic payments, they accepted a pinky promise from some hack commissioner in the Mills Administration that they wouldn’t do exactly what they did. Republicans got snowed, plain and simple. And that wasn’t the only example of Republican lawmakers obliviously allowing Democrats to build policy easter eggs that materialized come election season.
You can call the Democrats whatever you want, but you can’t call them stupid – at least not when it comes to using other peoples’ money to entrench their political power. Thanks to Republican weakness in the State Legislature, conservatives can do next to nothing to stop Democrats from creating the next round of constituency payoffs. The only thing they can do is adopt an aggressive public relations strategy aimed at explaining in simple terms to the Maine people precisely what is happening, as it’s happening. Every Republican lawmaker must now become an investigative reporter and a social media expert. All twelve or thirteen of them should adopt AOC-style approaches to naming and shaming their colleagues when they push progressive proposals will make us poorer and less free. It’s asking for a lot of aggression and ingenuity from a typically frightened bunch, I know. But Maine Republicans will not win a vote in the next two years. All they can hope to do is win in the court of public opinion.
Another structural disadvantage Maine Republicans have is turnout operation. It’s too early to say exactly what went wrong in a practical sense, but LePage seriously underperformed his 2014 re-election bid. In deeply conservative areas of the State, areas LePage won with 10 percent or more of the vote in 2014, he only won yesterday by 8 percent. Mills, in contrast, grew her strongholds. In towns she won by 10 percent or more in 2018, she won by more than 30 points! And while Mills more than doubled LePage’s vote count in the top largest 15 towns by population, LePage barely squeaked out an advantage in Maine’s smallest rural towns.
The Maine Democrats were very effective at securing turn out in their few rural strongholds, but devastatingly so in the major cities. Part of that is the student vote. At Bowdoin College, and I’m sure at the other less prestigious colleges in Maine, college busses ran all day long dragging radicalized young liberals from out of state to the polls. Maine Republicans can do little to compete with the college student vote. And turning out geographically distributed rural voters is much harder than organizing in cities. But something must be done. A good start would be nuking the unwise Republican resistance to early voting and mail-in voting.
Republicans have always favored day-of voting, but President Donald Trump’s attack on mail-in voting in 2020 really solidified an unhelpful decision to eschew early voting. If a Republican donor wanted to make a substantial difference in future state elections, he should consider making a large donation only on the condition that it be used to construct an elite early voting and mail-in voting apparatus.
Voting in modern elections now takes place over several weeks. Conservatives may not like it, it may open the door for fraud and bureaucratic shenanigans, but it’s a reality. These are the rules and this is the playing field. If Republicans want to win, they must show up early, not just on game day.
Ethan Strimling’s band of socialists lost in Portland. Quite convincingly, too. The socialist ballot initiatives to hike the minimum wage to $18 per hour and effectively ban most low-margin businesses from the city failed. Two proposals to reduce short-term rentals and impose harsh regulations on them failed. The one socialist victory came on “tenant protections” a.k.a. rent controls. In the name of making Portland a more livable city, the socialists have effectively guaranteed that landlords will refrain from making investments in upkeep, thereby transforming middle- and lower-income neighborhoods into shabby slums. The results aren’t great for Portland, but conservatives can take solace in knowing that at least one right-of-center campaign – “Enough is Enough” – managed to put up competent resistance to harmful policies. The socialists will return next year – what else do they have to do? But the lesson Portland’s “Enough is Enough” campaign teaches is that businesses can crush these asinine ideas if they bind together, make investments in effective campaigns, and refuse to compromise with ideological children.
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