At first glance, the results of last week’s elections in Maine seem contradictory.
Joe Biden ran well ahead of Hillary Clinton’s pace in 2016, winning the state by a 9 percent margin, compared with just 3 percent for Clinton. But his huge plurality in the 1st Congressional District was accompanied by the loss of the 2nd District, where the one electoral vote went again to Donald Trump, although by a smaller popular vote margin than in 2016.
Meanwhile, Democratic U.S. Senate nominee and current House Speaker Sara Gideon, who led all the published polls, lost to incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins decisively, by 9 percent – running 18 percent behind Biden’s totals.
The same split occurred in the legislative races, with Democrats adding one seat to their already impressive 21-14 majority in the Senate – their highest total in three decades.
In the House, Republicans gained 11 seats, largely by defeating seven Democratic incumbents, mostly in the 2nd District and other rural areas. Democrats secured just 80 seats, down sharply from the 88 they held at the beginning of the current session. It’s a working majority in the 151-seat chamber, but not a substantial one.
What explains the unusual splits?
For Rick Bennett, a former GOP state party chair now returning to the District 19 Senate seat he last held in 2002, a decades-long realignment between coastal and interior Maine is continuing apace.
“Democrats have done well in York and Cumberland, and up the coast beyond Bar Harbor,” he said.
The results bear this out. Except for strong Democratic enclaves in Lewiston and greater Bangor, everywhere else in the 2nd District has trended Republican. The lone Democratic senator representing a wholly rural area, 73-year-old Mike Carpenter, lost his District 2 seat in south-central Aroostook County to 26-year-old Trey Stewart, the assistant House leader seen as a rising star in the GOP.
Carpenter won the seat in 2016 when a Paul LePage-backed Republican proved too extreme even for rural constituents, and narrowly held it in 2018, backed by the “blue wave” that year. But with the Trump-Biden race driving turnout to unprecedented levels, Carpenter finished far behind Stewart, with just 44 percent.
“I knew I was living on borrowed time,” Carpenter said, adding that he felt “liberated” from the demands of an often full-time job, allowing him to focus on his busy law practice.
Democrats’ difficulties in House races were particularly evident in declining and former mill towns, where labor union members once ensured that Democrats regularly won the House contests, and many Senate seats.
Democratic Rep. Betty Austin lost her seat in Skowhegan, as did Rep. Christina Riley, a master electrician, in Jay. Both had served two terms. Republicans also took open seats previously held by Democrats in Winslow and Millinocket.
The legislative career of union leader John Patrick in Rumford is emblematic.
Patrick, a journeyman mechanic at the NewPage mill for 29 years, until recently had an unbroken record of electoral success; in 2010, he won his first Senate term with 68 percent of the vote. He had already served four House terms and three Senate terms when he lost his bid for a fourth term to Republican Lisa Keim in 2016. When he ran this year for the Rumford House seat, he lost to first-term Republican Josanne Dolloff.
Some rural Democratic legislators don’t feel supported by their party. One union member who regularly won elections in rural Penobscot county said that, in his final campaigns, he was “red-lined” by the House campaign committee – cut off from financial support.
There was one bright spot for legislative Democrats on Nov. 3 – in Lincoln County, once strongly Republican and still very rural; it has no cities, and its largest town, Waldoboro, has a population of just over 5,000.
Chloe Maxmin, a 28-year-old first-term House member from Nobleboro, defeated current Republican Senate Leader Dana Dow in District 13 by 550 votes, a 2 percent margin. Assistant Democratic Leader Eloise Vitelli said Maxmin’s win was “a welcome surprise,” while Maxmin said she thought “it would be close, but I expected to win.”
Bennett, for one, was impressed by Maxmin’s effort, calling her “an indomitable force” and “a relentless campaigner” who also benefited from spending by Senate Democrats that far outpaced what Republicans were able to muster.
How was Maxmin able to overcome the advantage of a five-term legislative veteran? In part, she said, by listening to her constituents and emphasizing their issues, rather than those promoted by national Democratic campaigns.
“It’s a big district, and it was much harder, during the virus, to reach people than I thought it would be,” Maxmin said.
Yet she stuck to the plan she developed, along with her campaign manager and fellow Harvard graduate, Canyon Woodward, that worked well in a rural House district in 2018. The two have received national attention for their efforts in politics and as climate change activists. They’ve also collaborated on a forthcoming book, “Dirt Road Revival,” that will be published next year by Beacon Press.
For his part, Carpenter found it impossible to avoid the fallout from national issues in Aroostook County – which, unlike Lincoln, favored Biden. He was endorsed both by the NRA and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, but “I can tell you that, of those whose top issue is gun control, two-thirds of them probably voted for my opponent.”
If the rural-coastal split continues to widen, what does it mean and, perhaps more important, is it a problem?
Bennett said he’s returning to Augusta because he thinks rural voters aren’t having their voices heard at the Statehouse. Despite previously serving as Senate president, he has no interest in a leadership position this time around.
“If you’re in leadership, you have two bosses: the caucus and your constituents,” Bennett said. “I want to focus on my district.”
Yet the big issues of the next session may promote cooperation simply because of their size, he said.
Maxmin, meanwhile, is hopeful the Biden administration will promote a coronavirus relief bill that includes money for state and municipal budgets – something absent from the CARES Act enacted in March.
Bennett said that otherwise, the Legislature faces an impossible task of conforming current programs to expected revenues as the recession continues.
“You could say that $1.2 billion” – what Maine received from the CARES Act – “goes a long way for a state budget like Maine’s,” he said.
Collaboration should be possible on a “robust” effort to spread broadband connections through rural Maine, although Bennett cautioned that “you can’t just run fiber optic cable everywhere.” Investing in planning infrastructure – the ConnectMe Authority is supposed to oversee the state effort, but has only a handful of employees – will be essential, he said.
Maxmin said transportation in rural areas, especially for house-bound seniors, must be part of state recovery efforts. The isolation and loneliness caused by the pandemic is a problem everywhere, but it’s greater where people have no access to cars or public transportation, she said.
For Vitelli, the election showed a yearning for movement back toward the political center – one conclusion that could be drawn from Maine’s votes for Biden and Collins.
As for the Legislature, which will have to operate starting in January in a manner different from anything seen before, she said, “Change is being forced on us by the pandemic, but it’s also an opportunity to reenvision how the Legislature works. How do we keep the core values, of being accessible to the public and responsive to the voters, and do it in a new way?”
Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and former editor of Maine Times.