Election shows seismic shift in Maine politics

At last the election is over, the phones are quiet and the peace is disturbed only by the sobbing of the Democrats. Lest anyone thought the 2010 election of Paul LePage as governor was a fluke, Republicans made it abundantly clear that there has been a seismic shift in Maine politics.

If Democrats were sure he could not win once, they were even surer he could not win twice. They were wrong. He added 10 percentage points to his base, getting within a stone’s throw of the 50 percent mark at over 48 percent of the vote. For those who said his first victory, a 38 percent plurality, lacked legitimacy, Governor LePage doubled down.

But wait, there’s more. Republican Bruce Poliquin, almost as much of a flash point for Democrats as Governor LePage himself, trounced Emily Cain for the 2nd Congressional District. A carpetbagger from the 1st CD, Mr. Poliquin was the opponent of choice for Emily Cain, who could have faced moderate Kevin Raye in the race. Be careful what you wish for. Bruce Poliquin won walking away.

Republicans won enough seats in the state Senate to take control in that chamber, and not by a whisker, either. The count at the end of election night was 20 seats R, 15 seats D. Several close races will undergo recounts, but the question of majority is not in doubt. In the House, Republicans picked up 10 seats with the final tally there also subject to recounts.

One of the Senate races going to a recount is that of Michael Thibodeau, last session’s Senate minority leader. His margin of victory in his Senate race was 115 votes, and his Republican colleagues were confident enough of the win that they selected Sen. Thibodeau as their candidate for president of the Senate. Given the Republican majority there, he will be the Senate’s new president and he has promised that his party will “accomplish some amazing things” in their new-found majority.

That a candidate who barely won his race will lead the Senate for the next two years doesn’t matter. It is who the Republicans select that matters, not what that person’s district thinks of him. Sen. Thibodeau already has indulged in the privilege of the majority, calling the Republican gains a “mandate” that obligates his party to advance its goals.

Senate Republicans will joyfully take possession of the Senate president’s office and the larger majority caucus room. The Senate chairmen of all committees will be Republicans. Normally, the Senate could be expected to work very closely with the Republican governor, but Governor LePage has proven himself to be an equal opportunity critic, leveling fire at Democrats and Republicans alike.

Having a legislative chamber under control of his party will lend strength to his iron-fisted governorship. There seemed to be sufficient self-control in the course of the campaign for the Governor not to self-destruct. If he can maintain that equilibrium, and with the strength of a Republican Senate behind him, Governor LePage has an opportunity to make significant gains.

Senate Democrats will be grumpy. In 1994 when they lost the majority, they spent more time in a state of high indignation about their minority status than they did trying to figure out how best to deploy what influence they had.

If Democrats are not connecting the dots between the lethally unpleasant ads their party put out in the course of the election, they should be. Sure, some of the nastiness came from out of state, but plenty of it originated right here in Maine.

In Hancock County, Sen. Brian Langley was the target of many a scurrilous ad. Because politics is so personal in Maine, it was not a plus for Democrats to demean and insult this warm, kind and hard-working man. Never mind that his opponent was also a nice guy, and had legislative experience to boot. The Democrats’ negative campaign against Sen. Langley backfired.

In the face of these widespread losses, Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant, like the balmy breezes of summer, is gone, gone, gone. Just a coincidence, says Mr. Grant, he was on the verge of leaving the job anyway. Right.

The Democrats have struggled mightily to find candidates at the statewide level who can compete. Too often they have tried to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Elizabeth Mitchell collapsed as a candidate in 2010; this time they threw all their weight behind Mike Michaud. Voters were not impressed.

One big change in the GOP-led Senate is that there will be women in the Republican caucus, three of them. Last term Republicans had nary a female member. And speaking of women, incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree swamped their opponents, as predicted.

If you are among the ranks of the disappointed, fear not. The sky did not fall during the first term of Governor LePage, and it will not fall during the second term either. The Legislature is divided and neither chamber has the all important two-thirds majority, so little can happen without some degree of collaboration. Republicans now have a chance to strut their stuff. It is up to them to convince us they should be more than a passing fancy.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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