What’s up Down East
The state of politics in the State of Maine
By Rick Holmes
April 28, 2017
Bath, Maine - The American flag has 50 stars, and each carries its own politics.
Here in Maine, the politics has reflected its people, who tend to be hard-working, practical and soft-spoken. Old Mainers aren’t given to flowery talk or flights of ideology. Maine’s got Republicans and Democrats, libertarians and greens, and they tend to get along OK, as people who disagree about politics have to do in small towns.
Here, the border that counts is the long, mostly unmarked line between Maine and Canada. Tourists and Canadian migrant farm workers cross it heading south, and U.S. products cross going north. But the migration with the biggest political impact has come from Massachusetts and other points south. Their presence has helped make the southern and coastal part of Maine increasingly liberal, while the more sparsely-populated northern part is more conservative.
That divide is reflected in Maine’s two congressional districts, which adds a wrinkle to presidential elections. Maine is one of two states that allocate Electoral College votes by House district. By winning the northern district, Donald Trump came out of Maine with one electoral vote last fall, to three for Hillary Clinton.
Successful Maine politicians have typically been plain-spoken and moderate. They have had to speak the language of the timber workers and hard-scrabble farmers inland as well as the lobstermen on the coast, none of whom have time for political foolishness. Over the years, the state has produced respected national leaders skilled at forging compromise, like former senators Ed Muskie and George Mitchell. It has been one of the last bastions of the moderate Republican, currently best represented by Sen. Susan Collins, who is seen by Democrats as being the GOP senator most likely to buck Trump on issues like health care and immigration.
Party ties don’t bind as tightly here as in some other places, and independent candidates regularly shake things up. In 1994, a wealthy businessman and PBS talk-show host named Angus King did just that. He ran for governor as an independent against a tired Democrat and an up-and-coming Republican – the same Susan Collins – and beat them both.
After two successful terms in Augusta, King bought an RV and hit the road to see the country with his family (much like I’m doing now, only the Kings had a much more luxurious vehicle). Then he went home to Georgetown Island – a wonderful spot in the Mid-Coast region, where my family has vacationed for decades – and wrote a book about it.
Growing political polarization provided an opportunity for King’s return to politics in 2012, when Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe announced she’d had it with the extreme partisanship in Washington and wouldn’t seek re-election.
Fun fact: Snowe is married to former Maine Gov. John McKernan and holds the distinction of being the only U.S. senator ever to serve as a state’s first lady at the same time. Maine politics can be pretty small family.
King was handily elected to Snowe’s seat in the Senate, where he is one of two independents – another crusty New Englander, Bernie Sanders, is the other – who vote mostly with the Democrats. King is respected in Washington and still popular back home, where he’s heavily favored to win a second term in 2018.
But the central figure in Maine’s current political drama doesn’t fit the traditional mold. Gov. Paul LePage is pugnacious and unfiltered. He delights in giving offense, shrugging off criticism for comments deemed racist or sexist as “political correctness.” His policies are hard-line conservative and his style is that of a street fighter. He has clashed repeatedly with the state Legislature, even sparking calls for his impeachment.
If that reminds you of a certain national politician, that’s fine with LePage, who says he was “Donald Trump before Donald Trump.”
LePage, a Republican, was elected in 2010 with just 37 percent of the vote - thanks to the presence on the ballot of two of those pesky independents - and re-elected four years later in a similar three-way race. Because Maine governors are limited to two terms, Democrats have been counting the days until he leaves office next year. LePage of late has been taunting them with talk that he might run for the Senate against Angus King.
But there’s a new twist. Collins now says she may leave the Senate to run for governor next year. Depending on the timing of her resignation, Gov. LePage could appoint someone to fill out her term – and he just might decide to appoint himself.
That’s where Maine’s politics intersects with national politics. Replacing the moderate Collins with the combative, pro-Trump LePage would change the Senate chemistry, with unpredictable results.
Each star on the flag carries with it two U.S. senators, which means even the smallest state can have a big impact on the nation.