Triumph of the rural Maine Democrat

By Matthew Gagnon

After Janet Mills handily dispatched Shawn Moody in the 2018 gubernatorial contest, an explanation for her win became popular in Republican circles: liberal voters in southern Maine handed Mills the election. 

The logic went a little something like this: Mills won the election by about 48,000 votes statewide, with a margin of 42,000 votes in Cumberland County alone. So, Portland and its surrounding communities were, this logic went, responsible for Mills winning.

That analysis, though, was always wrong. 

To explain why, we need to go back to 2014 and compare that election with the reality of today. A lot has changed in Maine since then, obviously, and that change is at the heart of the Republican theory of political geography. 

Voters from liberal enclaves in the northeast keep moving into southern Maine, and this influx of outsiders is making it impossible for the Republicans to win statewide. Or so the belief goes. 

And there is ample evidence to confirm that this migration has been happening. I live in Yarmouth and between 2014 and 2022, the net advantage enjoyed by Democrats grew from about 527 to almost 2,200. 

This is a phenomenon that has been repeated in almost every single locality across southern Maine, and the shift only grew more pronounced during the pandemic. Having seen this shift, many Republicans declared earlier this year that Paul LePage was doomed.

To test that theory, I decided to try to re-evaluate the 2014 election — which LePage won by nearly 5 percentage points and 30,000 votes — to see what would have happened if that race had been contested with the changes from 2014 to today, demographic-wise, factored in. 

It turns out that, assuming candidate-to-party trends held, after adjusting for higher population and registration changes, LePage would still have won. Granted, the margin would have been 3 points thinner but he still would have won the race. Curiously, LePage would have lost Cumberland County by nearly 41,000 votes, nearly identical to the margin that Moody lost by in 2018. 

Analyzing more deeply one finds that LePage’s win in 2014 came from a very strong performance in rural Maine that made up for the margins he lost down south. That was what doomed Moody in 2018. It wasn’t that he lost southern Maine, although that obviously didn’t help. His real issue was that he didn’t perform as LePage had in the rest of the state.

Tuesday night we saw an almost identical failure, as LePage was unable to build his needed margins outside southern Maine, and like Moody he was unable to overcome the southern Maine margins that Gov. Janet Mills had gained. As of the results available at the time I write this column, LePage is basically tied with Mills in the 2nd Congressional District.

The very same district he dominated in 2014, and Donald Trump won by large margins twice

Speaking of the 2nd District, we also saw a similar performance in the congressional race between Jared Golden and Bruce Poliquin. Again here, despite Republican registration advantages and what appeared to be a recent red trend, Golden overperformed and Poliquin underperformed, leading to an inevitable win for Golden. 

It would be easy to place the blame for this failure at the feet of LePage and Poliquin, and claim that they didn’t make a good case in their backyards. But there is something else going on here. 

Mills didn’t win because of southern Maine margins, though that certainly helped. Instead, it was because she won towns in Oxford County, as well as Franklin, Somerset, Kennebec and Somerset. She held serve on Democratic turf, and had a unique appeal to red Maine. Golden, too, did well where he needed to, and fought and won in enemy territory.

Prognosticators will explain their triumph in many ways, analyzing the issues debated and national dynamics. But in the end both Mills and Golden won because they’re from the places they did well. 

So much of modern politics is about identity, and Mils remembers what it is like to talk to the neighbors she grew up around. Golden understood his own voters, and they felt like he was one of them, because political differences aside, he is. 

Identity trumps all in politics. Tuesday was the triumph of the rural Maine Democrat, and the Maine Democratic Party may have finally figured out that running unabashedly progressive southern Maine liberals is a recipe for failure. To win, they need people who understand the rest of the state, and can credibly talk to them. 

For Republicans, a similar realization is due to them, and only time will tell if they learn from this. If they hope to win in the future, they need to pivot to the future, and start figuring out how to appeal to people outside their safe space.

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.

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