The race for Maine governor in 2026 has begun

By Matthew Gagnon

The second legislative session of Maine’s 131st Legislature has now, mercifully concluded. Like nearly all “first two years of a second term” periods, the governor and her allies have flexed the political muscle built by a strong 2022 election over the last two years, moving forward on controversial bills and dismissively swatting away their political rivals, making them effectively irrelevant. 

But a strange thing also seemed to be happening at the same time, as cracks in the Democratic phalanx became visible, exposing the fault lines of division within. 

Going back in time a bit, the first term of Gov. Janet Mills was marked by unity and deference to her. Part of this was due to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which undoubtedly influenced lawmakers to be more passive and allow the governor to run the state by herself, with little input from the Legislature. Then again, in this period we saw plenty of states run uniformly by Republicans or Democrats that did feature conflict between the legislative and executive branches of government, and insistent state lawmakers pushing back against gubernatorial authority. 

Whatever the reason for the apathy, Mills was the Queen of the Hill for four years, and authority clearly flowed from the Blaine House. Lesser politicians bending the knee to a first-term governor makes sense, because all of the hopes of a party for enacting its agenda rest with that individual succeeding, being viewed as a strong leader, and being re-elected. After winning the second term, though, the inevitable question begins to be asked: Who’s next?

Mills is not going to stand for election as governor again in 2026, being constitutionally prohibited from doing so. This means that the Democrats (and the Republicans) will have a wide-open primary for the right to succeed her. Future candidates are already jockeying for position in an attempt to elevate their own standing in the eyes of the public and the party, hoping that they will be the next chosen one.

Many people suspect, myself included, that this was the main reason that Secretary of State Shenna Bellows ultimately decided to attempt (and fail) to throw Donald Trump off the ballot in Maine. Bellows is clearly ambitious, and has already attempted to run for higher office once, and it would be illogical for her to not consider running for governor in 2026, given the fact that she occupies one of Maine’s constitutional officer positions. 

But it is the Legislature, and the tensions therein that this struggle may really be playing out. 

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, for instance, is clearly one of the main leaders of the Maine Democratic Party’s progressive wing, and in fact would compete for those voters with a figure like Bellows, were both of them to run. Some suggest that the speaker “would never get elected statewide,” being a Portland-based progressive, but there is clearly a line of thought that believes Maine is a blue state, and that whoever the Democratic nominee is will be the odds-on favorite to win the general election. That is likely on her mind as she considers her future, and it may explain some of the tension between her and the governor.

Since Talbot-Ross gained the gavel, she has repeatedly sparred with Mills on a number of issues, most noticeably on things like tribal sovereignty, but also on spending issues, and just in the last week whether or not the Legislature could do any real business on “veto day.” 

The same is true of Senate President Troy Jackson, though clearly his position within the Democratic Party ideological structure is more confusing. He is a rural politician from Aroostook County, is a former Republican, and tends to cast himself as a reasonable, moderate politician. Yet his voting record during his tenure in Augusta has been stridently progressive on most issues. Still, if you are thinking through the politics of it all, it is hard not to notice that the only Democrats that seem to succeed statewide are self-styled moderates from central, western or northern Maine (i.e. not Portland). Jackson fits that bill. 

Now that Mills is essentially finished with her sixth year of work (for the most part), her relevance and importance as a figure is beginning to wane. To be clear, she remains in a strong position and this session has been winning most of the fights she has been having with the Legislature. But the very fact that the fights are happening at all tell you that the page is starting to be turned.

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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