Editorial: As Maine goes

In 1888, after Maine’s gubernatorial results indicated for the sixth time that the Pine Tree State was a bellwether for presidential elections, a snappy saying gained currency. “As Maine goes, so goes the nation” became a strategic principle for political parties. A win in Maine’s congressional and state races was seen as a predictor of national outcomes.

America’s political soothsayers are once again grounding their forecasts on the Maine outcome. The anticipated Susan Collins-Sara Gideon race for U.S. Senate is seen as a key to flipping the Senate in 2020 or maintaining the Republican majority. Collins, the four-term Republican incumbent, energized Democrats and progressives with her support for Trump’s tax cuts and the President’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. With three seats needed to reclaim the Senate majority, the Democratic National Committee is betting heavily on Maine. Unsurprisingly, GOP support for Collins is correspondingly robust. It’s a high-stakes contest, and when the stakes are big, so too is the money.

Political ad spending in the United States has grown an average of 27 percent each year since 2012. A great deal of the money pouring into the Collins and Gideon campaigns comes from out of state. Nothing new there, it’s been going on (and up) for decades. Money from away rankles Mainers steeped in “people from away” wariness, but their misgivings won’t slow the flow. Ever since the landmark Citizens United decision, Super PACs have become dominant.

Maine’s national significance, less as a barometer than as a player, is undisputed these days. Open to dispute, as a result, is the old saw that “all politics is local.” That one is dead and buried under an immense mound of PAC money.

This state of affairs could be addressed through campaign finance reform, a cause revered by almost everyone and adopted by almost no one. The inertia on campaign finance reform brings to mind G.K. Chesterton’s crack about Christianity: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”

The Supreme Court’s 2010 opinion in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission struck down limits on corporations’ campaign spending, finding such limits to be an abridgment of free speech. It was an abhorrent ruling and a 5-4 squeaker at that. Overturning that decision would go a long way toward bringing about meaningful reform of election spending.

Nor is that an impossible dream. An article in the April 2016 edition of The Atlantic reminds us that “a quarter century ago, the idea that gay and lesbian couples had a constitutional right to marry was at least as far-fetched as campaign finance reform has seemed in recent years.” How was that right established?

It began with states making incremental changes to ban discrimination, expand parental rights and allow domestic partnership benefits. As The Atlantic noted, “by the time the Court declared that gay and lesbian couples had a federal right to marry, 37 states and the District of Columbia had recognized same-sex marriage.” The same is true for the right of representation for the indigent defendant and the legalization of interracial marriage: by the time the Supreme Court took up these matters, they were settled law in a majority of the states.

Maine already has public financing to reduce the influence of private wealth. We need to build up that opportunity and do more to value the individual vote over the millionaires’ bucks, then export the idea to neighboring states until it’s a done deal in state after state. And would it not be grand if one day the pundits would say, as they did in 1888, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”

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