What to make of the 2014 elections in Maine? Against the odds (or so it seemed to this observer) our incumbent governor Paul LePage is returned to the Blaine House with a much higher proportion of the vote than in 2010 (48% versus 38%). Moreover, it seems he would have beaten Democratic challenger Mike Michaud even if Independent Eliot Cutler had not been in the race – given that Cutler’s final (disappointing) 8% was estimated to be approximately two thirds Democratic-leaning and one-third Republican leaning. All of this from someone thought to be vulnerable for a litany of good reasons known to most all of us.
It certainly looked in the last week of the race that the momentum was shifting to Michaud. First Cutler released those of his voters “who didn’t think he could win”. Then Senator Angus King switched his endorsement from Cutler to Michaud and promptly joined Mike on the campaign trail. The President (of the U.S.) even came to town for a big rally for Mike. Michaud ads flooded the airwaves – and I mean flooded. All that money and glitz for a disappointing 44% of the vote.
How could this have happened? I offer the following reasons: First, credit the Governor himself. LePage was a more compelling candidate on the stump and in the debates than most of us expected. He came across as feisty but with a touch of humor that surprised.
Second, LePage somehow conveyed that he was the “everyman” outsider who could appeal to those frustrated with our current political process, particularly our national political process. He played on this discontent with his two signature issues: welfare reform and an unwillingness to expand Medicaid (MaineCare) in Maine. Both Cutler and Michaud downplayed the welfare issue and embraced covering more uninsured in Maine with federal money in Medicaid expansion, as did most leaders in the state health care field.
Yet LePage took these issues head on, adamantly focusing on “too many on the welfare rolls” and how Maine couldn’t afford Medicaid expansion suggesting, disingenuously, that all could be covered by the Obamacare reforms. Both of these messages apparently appealed well beyond the conservative Republican base.
Third, Michaud was not a strong candidate. He too often looked flummoxed as when asked in one debate repeatedly how he would distinguish himself from Eliot Cutler. After several embarrassing moments he mumbled something about being more experienced. Cutler was quite effective in exposing the vulnerabilities of both candidates, but Michaud handled this much less well than LePage. LePage seemed unfazed by Cutler’s critiques and feisty in his own defense.
Finally, LePage forces more or less kept pace with the extraordinary spending by the Democrats and their allies. This was by far the most expensive gubernatorial race in the state’s history. The final tallies on spending are still coming in but it appears that the Democrats and their allies put more than $10 million into the race, compared to $7 million for the Republicans and $3 million for Cutler. All of the late negative advertising by the Ds and Rs all but drowned out the Cutler messaging.
For many, the story of this race will be that LePage tapped into voter discontent in similar ways to many Republican Gubernatorial and Senatorial candidates around the country -in spite of a first term marked by gaffes and mindless confrontation. For me the real story of this election is how the best candidate, independent Eliot Cutler, was marginalized by the two parties in 2014 after all but winning the race in 2010. Cutler had a strong message that just didn’t fully connect with Maine voters. He wasn’t helped by commentators who labeled him elitist, almost as if being smart and having an Ivy League pedigree was a political liability. The truth of the matter was best put by the Bangor Daily News in their endorsement of Cutler: “ Cutler will restore dignity, reason and vision to the Blaine House”.
Were most Maine voters just not paying attention? I fear that many tuned out and that the Cutler message couldn’t get through the torrent of negative advertising by his opponents in the last few weeks.
The only positive in all this, particularly when compared to the national scene, is that, after the dust settles, party leaders on both sides will pull together in a pragmatic way to move the state forward. Governor LePage looks to have learned from his first four years, and is better for it. He has, as he said on election night, achieved the American Dream. We can hope he might be kinder to others who strive for the same. We are fortunate to live in a state where the red-blue divide is bridgeable. Let us make the best of it.