Maine legislative races may be more important than governor’s contest this year
By Matthew Gagnon
In the past 47 years, the Maine House has been in Republican hands for only two of those years. While the degree of control has waxed and waned, the Democrats have possessed Maine’s lower house for the other 45 years. The story in the Senate is still tilted in favor of the Democrats, but Republicans have done a bit better, possessing the upper chamber for a total of 17 years.
Recently, though, things have been a tad more competitive. Since 2011, Republicans and Democrats have been far more even in the House, with elections regularly putting the margin between the two parties at 10 seats or less. In the Senate, each party controlled the body for six years.
Thus, if you were trying to characterize the legislative environment in Maine, you would say the Democrats have a natural advantage, but Republicans have had much more success in the last decade or so.
In November, Maine voters will once again go to the polls, and as they consider elections for other offices like governor and their member of Congress, they will be asked to decide who should control Maine’s legislative body. Control of that legislative body also carries with it control of the offices of attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer and state auditor, so the decision is more important than your typical state legislative election.
In the past two years, we’ve seen hundreds of examples that demonstrate why control of the Legislature is so important, despite its lower profile. Throughout COVID, while other states were limiting emergency powers and passing sweeping economic reforms, Maine’s Legislature decided to largely cede its authority to the governor and sit back, serving as a glorified rubber stamp for Gov. Janet Mills’ agenda.
Regardless of who wins the gubernatorial contest this November, the Legislature will be incredibly important. If Mills wins reelection, it could continue the passive legislating we have seen, or it could potentially provide an important check on her power, causing her to make sweeping compromises that force her to the political center.
If former Gov. Paul LePage wins, it could provide the Republicans an opportunity for a long-desired “do-over” from their cautious agenda after winning control of government in 2011. Privately I have heard many conservatives over the years voice their disappointment with the “blown opportunity” that was that two-year period, where LePage and legislative Republicans passed up a golden opportunity to aggressively change the state.
Likewise, if LePage wins and the Democrats retain control, we would once again see an adversarial relationship and plenty of intergovernmental conflict. Amusingly, I would expect an immediate limitation on the governor’s authority — something I’ve been begging to get for two years now — to occur in such a situation.
Recently, there have been some indications that the Maine Legislature will be a major battlefield this year. In March, the Republican State Leadership Committee announced that it was putting Maine on its 2022 target list, and it has already started buying ads in the state, tying Maine Democrats to the toxic national Biden brand. The committee does not waste money on states and races it doesn’t think it can win.
Further adding fuel to the idea that Maine’s races will be ultra-competitive is some new independent analysis from two election forecasting groups — FiveThirtyEight and CNalysis — which classify both bodies as either a pure toss-up or even lean-Republican in their ratings.
Said FiveThirtyEight, “It may not be the first state that comes to mind when you think ‘swing state,’ but Maine has one of the most competitive legislatures in the country. Although it’s a light blue state overall, both the state Senate and state House have small Republican median-seat biases. As a result, the tipping-point district in each chamber falls squarely in the ‘highly competitive’ camp.”
This means you can expect a lot of attention, and a lot of money, to pour into these races. It also means that this year, you should spend a little more time paying attention to these local elections and choose wisely. The next two years depend on it.
Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.