Chloe Maxmin put herself on the political map – not only in Maine but nationally – by winning upset bids in 2018 and 2020 for the Legislature from Lincoln County, among the most rural in the state.
That a progressive Democrat could win races in “Trump country” at a time the national party was abandoning some rural states entirely was genuine news. So it was a bit of a shock that, after winning in a House district that had never elected a Democrat and then defeating the Republican Senate leader two years later, Maxmin decided not to run again.
That decision came too late to be included in her new book, “Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends on It,” which she co-authored with her campaign manager, Canyon Woodward, and which is due out in May from Beacon Press. The book is, in essence, the next step on the “dirt road.”
In it, she calls out her party for the way it organizes and conducts campaigns, finding its strategy far too negative, focused on partisan data to the exclusion of the strengths of individual candidates and how they match up with voters of all persuasions. The final section offers, in detail, a blueprint for an alternative way to campaign.
In an interview, Maxmin acknowledged that some of her supporters are disappointed by her decision to leave the Legislature, but said this was always part of her plan. Even running for office at age 26 was an almost spur-of-the-moment decision.
After graduating from Harvard and cutting her teeth with the climate divestiture movement, she was primed for more, but believed she “needed to have a law degree and get married before running for office.”
Inspired by a mentor who had run for and won a House seat in Racine, Wisconsin – a blue-collar bastion of Trumpism – she decided, “Why wait for tomorrow when I could easily do it today?”
She’s now enrolled for the fall semester at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland, but doesn’t expect to leave politics behind for long.
When she first ran for office, Maxmin, from a farm family in Nobleboro, knew most people in town – but wasn’t at all sure they’d vote for her in House District 88. The district was “minus 16” – meaning Republicans had a 16 percent voter advantage – and she had to first win a primary.
After easily prevailing in June, she got 53 percent in November, winning by 218 votes after a campaign that included some of the most intensive door-knocking on record.
Maxmin had hardly settled into her new responsibilities when, in March 2019, she was asked by Democrats to consider running in Senate District 13, then represented by Republican Sen. Dana Dow. The GOP caucus leader’s family furniture store on Route 1 in Waldoboro was so familiar to Lincoln County voters that it gave him a seemingly unbeatable edge.
Yet Maxmin, aided by Woodward’s data sets, knew it wasn’t impossible. The county’s coastal towns had been trending Democratic and the district, known as “Lucky 13,” was only “minus 3.”
Still, a Senate leader hadn’t lost a reelection bid since 1992, when Democratic Senate President Charlie Pray was defeated in the wake of the 1991 state government shutdown. The odds were long.
Then the coronavirus pandemic set in and door-to-door campaigning ceased for months. Yet Maxmin was able to cautiously improvise and resume personal visits.
The 2020 election was good for Democrats at the top of the ticket – president and U.S. Senate – but mostly disastrous down-ballot. On election night, clinging to a tiny lead, it all came down to Boothbay, a town that had always voted Republican.
When the results finally arrived, Maxmin had carried the town. As the book relates, “all Canyon could muster” was “Holy shit!” while “Chloe burst into tears. To this day, she can’t remember the next 15 minutes of her life. She is told that she ran out into the field and collapsed weeping, while worried family tried to get through to her.”
Politics is intense.
‘Time for a new phase’
The book, Maxmin makes clear, is the centerpiece of the authors’ new venture in politics – a way of convincing young Democrats they can win in rural districts, and that the opportunity is there.
“I was 25 when I started running for office, and 30 as I’m leaving,” she said. “It’s time for a new phase.”
“Dirt Road Revival” reads as part campaign thriller, part self-help candidate manual, and succeeds on both scores. Readers may be tempted to skip over an initial section on national issues – which draws heavily on the familiar online analyses – and paints a largely discouraging picture of continued national division and political failures.
When their own experiences are involved, Maxmin’s and Woodward’s prose perks up, and the book becomes a genuine page-turner – even though we already know how things will turn out.
It would be an understatement to say Maxmin has an ambivalent relationship with the Democratic Party, especially its Maine Senate campaign arm.
While she recognizes Republicans are unlikely to campaign on anything remotely progressive, she believes Democrats have largely written off rural voters, including Maine’s, leading to Donald Trump’s win in 2016.
And she’s willing to lay out, in detail, why she thinks the party’s strategies have been self-defeating.
Direct mail consumes half of what Senate Democrats recommend for a campaign budget. Maxmin and Woodward write: “We gawked at a hideous direct-to-trashcan mail mock-up they provided,” and decided to make their own.
The detailed side-by-side budget comparisons are enlightening. Each printed “Chloe” item – signs, cards, mailings – was personally designed, not cookie-cutter. The party recommended pouring all advertising dollars into TV and digital; Maxmin’s budget included a healthy amount of local newspaper ads.
Also, unlike the party budget, it allowed for staff salaries, which produced one of the campaign’s low points when Republicans circulated that Chloe and Canyon were romantic partners (they are not), which was why he was being paid, and that Maxmin had never held a job (she works several) and that she lived with her mother (she doesn’t).
Despite the temptation to hit back, they never did, sticking with their vow of “100 percent positive” campaigning – itself a novelty in the present moment.
Of course, when the “defunding police” charge came up (again, false) it helped to have the endorsement of Lincoln County’s long-time, respected Sheriff Todd Brackett – as well as that of the Republican former legislator and county chair, Les Fossel.
The biggest innovation of Maxmin’s campaigns was to throw away the voter lists prepared at Democratic headquarters, which recommend visiting only those who already have party voting records, or lean that way.
Maxmin dramatically expanded those circles, “and without it,” she said, “we wouldn’t have won.”
The turning point came when, amid a statewide push to expand Medicaid – a measure blocked for years by former Gov. Paul LePage – she visited a small business owner who adamantly opposed expansion.
Yet she persevered, and as she listened, came to realize the business owner had no objection to people getting health care; he just didn’t like the way it was being sold.
After that conversation and a second one, he told her he’d vote for her and did so again in 2020. “For a year,” she said, “I thought about that almost every day.”
In a nutshell, that’s Maxmin’s approach to changing politics. She sees the energy being generated in a host of social movements being dissipated by ideology when it enters the political arena.
And the only way to change that is to have one often difficult conversation at a time.
The “dirt road revival” is designed to start at the local level, and one can see why; neighbors have to start trusting each other first.
By contrast, the 2022 governor’s race features just two candidates, whose average age is 74. The incumbent Democrat, Janet Mills, hasn’t held an unscripted news conference during her first three years in office, and regularly refuses interview requests. The Republican, Paul LePage, did make pronouncements frequently – but only on friendly radio talk shows.
During five years in politics, Maxmin has had a “Coffee with Chloe” every month, where everyone is welcome and can ask any question they like.
Can it be repeated?
One big question is whether Maxmin and Woodward are on to something about rural America – or whether extraordinary personal qualities were responsible for their electoral successes.
Revival has happened before for Democrats, although not in a long time. When Maxmin ventured down dirt roads, she often came upon houses where no candidate, Republican or Democrat, had ever called.
That was the late Ed Muskie’s experience too, in his groundbreaking 1954 campaign for governor, when his ebullient campaign manager, Dick McMahon, would gather a small crowd on the village green by using a bullhorn.
Maxmin’s unofficial campaign headquarters was the North Nobleboro Community Center, where dozens of volunteers gathered to learn a new style of politics, and the House campaign’s celebrations took place.
By taking rural voters seriously, Muskie upset Republican incumbent Gov. Burton Cross at a time the GOP was still mired in isolationism and then red-baiting; the opportunity was there.
A “wave election” followed nationally in 1958, as liberal Democrats won Senate seats in states like Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and South Dakota – and where Republicans had prevailed for almost a century. The last of them were still serving when Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide restored GOP hegemony.
“Dirt Road Revival” draws a comparison with Maine’s 2020 U.S. Senate race between GOP incumbent Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, where more than $100 million was spent and negativity was off the charts.
Maxmin believes it doesn’t work, at least not for Democrats, who stand for the government’s ability to improve people’s lives with education, health care, and a clean environment.
Her message: “We live in a democracy that is woefully disconnected from and unrepresentative of the people it is supposed to serve.”
And that too, she says, must change.
Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator, and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now in paperback. He welcomes comments at [email protected].
Excerpts from ‘Dirt Road Revival’
• “It was the first time that a voter had shouted abusively at Chloe, and it left her in shock for a few days. (It was not to be the last time, and she has much thicker skin now.)”
• “Politics as unusual meant pioneering these strategies on our own.”
• “We gathered at the North Nobleboro Community Hall. … People showed up en masse. The Leopard Girls, a local band, wowed the crowd. We enjoyed a massive potluck feast together.”
• “The more conversations that we had, the more we discovered the powerful act of listening.”
• “At the Waldoboro Town Hall, six (House) candidates debated. Five of them were men with gray hair. And then there was Chloe.”
• “The Senate Democratic Campaign Committee director straight up told us that they didn’t believe in talking to Republicans. In 2018, Chloe had spoken with a ton of hard-core Republicans to win.”
• “The SDCC wanted us to use their video consultant, whose videos were canned, with the world’s most boring scripts. … Our video received almost 23,000 views.”
• “You can’t deny that you want to win because you want to fight for your home, for your community, for your family and friends. … Our movement lives on whether we win or not. But winning still feels pretty damn good.”
— Douglas Rooks