There used to be a popular political aphorism: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” Until 1950, the state was considered a bellwether for presidential elections: Whomever Mainers elected as governor in September, that party would take the White House in November.
Then Maine became a political maverick, standing blissfully apart from the political trajectory of the rest of the country.
As partisanship and gridlock overwhelmed legislatures across the country – most notably Congress – Maine built a reputation as a bastion of moderate politics. It has been one of the few states where independent candidates can run viable campaigns, and their Republican and Democratic representatives, from the State House in Augusta to Capitol Hill, have been even-tempered and cooperative.
This decade, however, has some Mainers wondering if their state has again become a canary in America’s political coal mine.
Before Donald Trump shocked the establishment by seizing the Republican presidential nomination in a storm of populist discontent and political incorrectness, Maine had a similar populist uprising in 2010 when Paul LePage was elected governor.
But while Governor LePage has braggadocio and a long trail of controversial sound bites in common with the Republican presidential nominee, he is much more conservative, and Maine politics has reached new levels of partisanship under his leadership. While this isn’t solely about the tone he has set – state Democrats have fought him with the subtlety of a foghorn – Mainers are taking stock of how their political discourse has changed so much so quickly, and whether the state will revert to its moderate and pragmatic political traditions.
It is a moment that resonates beyond the pine trees and jewel-bright lakes of America’s northeastern frontier.
Maine, for so long an antidote to the incivility and partisan anger that have defined federal politics, raises a question in its descent into the same proclivities:
If Maine can’t save itself from toxic hyperpartisanship, what state can?
But just as the state presaged the rise of Mr. Trump on populist anger, it might now be coming to terms with a need to reclaim its practical past, providing lessons for a nation that, like Maine, is looking at its politics with mounting disgust.
“We’ve always had this genteel politics up here,” says Lance Dutson, a longtime GOP political operative in Maine. “I’m surprised at how prescient Maine was for this national Trump phenomenon.”
How LePage trumped moderate brand
Conditions were ripe in 2010 for LePage to take the governorship, says Mr. Dutson.
The state’s economy had been stagnant for years and taxes were high. LePage pledged to reverse both those things, emphasizing his inspiring rise from a homeless youth to a small-business owner and mayor of Waterville. LePage also benefited from running in a three-way race, with independent Eliot Cutler winning 36 percent of the vote and Democrat Libby Mitchell taking 19 percent. LePage won 38 percent and was reelected in 2014 with 41 percent.
LePage remains popular with core supporters, but has also gained a national reputation for making inflammatory off-the-cuff statements, including comparing the Internal Revenue Service to Nazi Germany and claiming that President Obama “hates white people.”
“People always thought that there were serious repercussions for politicians going too far, and in Maine in particular,” says Dutson.
“When LePage was elected we thought the Earth was flat, and if you went too far [politically] you would fall off the edge,” he adds. “What he proved is there is no edge.”
The result has been a contentious and historically unproductive Legislature. Democrats controlled the House and Republicans the Senate, and fewer than 30 percent of the bills proposed in the past legislative session became law, the Bangor Daily News reported. LePage, meanwhile, has vetoed more bills than any governor in state history. He even adopted a dog and named it Veto.
This climate is a jarring departure from the ethos of pragmatic cooperation that has defined Maine for decades, in large part because of the state’s geography.
Why Mainers are forced to cooperate
Maine is a large state with a small population – its density of 41 people per square mile is the lowest of any state east of the Mississippi. That has made political cooperation something of a survival tactic in the state, says Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine in Orono. “That really has over the decades created this culture of interdependence and interreliance and really forced people in Maine to work together and accomplish things,” he says. “If they don’t band together and help each other, it’s unclear where help would come from.”
That attitude has led Maine’s political system to develop some unique features. The foundation of the system, Mainers say, is their commitment to annual town meetings that keep citizens routinely involved in politics. The Legislature also routinely fills with novice politicians – teachers, nurses, police officers – who cycle in and out of the State House thanks to a two-term limit.
Christine Burstein, for example, had never held any elected office before she was elected state representative for the 2,100-person town of Lincolnville in 2015. She had spent most of her life working as a nurse, but also spent time on the local school board, starting some parent groups. She also ran an Obama campaign office for his 2012 reelection.
“I’ve always been civically minded,” she says in an interview with the Monitor.
But after a “very overwhelming” first term in Augusta, the Democrat went to Lincolnville’s annual town meeting in mid-June and told the roughly 60 constituents there that she wouldn’t be running for reelection. Part of the reason, she says, is how divided the state Legislature has become.“Our Legislature is pretty partisan,” she says. “The issues are so big, and the days are so long.”
The issues discussed at the Lincolnville town meeting were not nearly as big, but there was still some vigorous debate and democratic expediency. The discussion of one item – concerning the town’s next solid-waste disposal contract – lasted about an hour. When it was finished, the town voted to combine the remaining 14 items and approved them unanimously with one vote.
While most of the attendees filtered back to their cars, Barbara Gould stayed behind to talk with some friends. She says it was one of the more contentious discussions the town has had since it voted a few years ago to disband the town’s local police force.
But these kinds of debates over local policies are why Mainers like Ms. Gould – who considers herself a Democrat, but has voted for US Sens. Olympia Snowe, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent – remain relatively moderate and demand moderation of their political representatives.
“When you live in a small town, you have to see your neighbors every day. You’ve got to rub elbows with them; your kids are in school together,” she says. “It’s not that you can’t disagree, but you can’t be mean about it. You’ve got to maintain respect.”
Mainers’ bipartisan approach in Washington
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine – a Republican considered by the Lugar Center, a bipartisan policy think tank, to be the most bipartisan politician in the chamber – thinks this is why she’s been able to remain more moderate even while Congress has become more polarized around her. Senator Collins broke from party ranks after the terrorist attack in Orlando, Fla., for example, to fashion a bipartisan gun control bill.
And that is only the most recent example of Maine’s federal representatives crossing party lines. William Cohen, as a Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee, recommended impeaching President Nixon in 1974. Edmund Muskie – a former US senator and secretary of State, and perhaps the state’s most famous Democrat – “actively supported liberal social causes while fighting to hold down excessive Government spending,” The New York Times wrote in its 1996 obituary.
Whether it’s because of gerrymandering, their personal ethos, or apathy, many voters in other states don’t demand that their politicians remain moderate the way Maine voters do, Collins believes.
“Mainers are very pragmatic. They take commonsense approaches to problems,” she says. “They expect us to work together and get things done.”
The next generation of Maine politicians seems to be aspiring to fit that mold.
Take Bruce Poliquin, a freshman Republican and one of Maine’s two members of the US House, who has actually become more moderate during his two years in Congress. After saying in a failed 2012 US Senate campaign that he “loves to argue with liberals,” he has opposed federal anti-union right-to-work legislation, voted against repealing “Obamacare,” and angered tea party Republicans by voting to keep John Boehner as House speaker.
Michael Timchak of Windsor Chairmakers in Lincolnville is unlikely to support Mr. Poliquin, but he appreciates the congressman’s attitude.
“They’re trying to represent the people of the state, and the general feeling in the state is a more moderate feeling, a more bipartisan kind of feeling to get things done,” he says, referring to Maine’s congressional delegation.
And he is optimistic that that “core value” of the state – “to do something, and do a good job” – will ensure that the divisiveness and gridlock of the LePage era will fade after he is “termed out” in 2018.
“The core values in the state will put a stop on that,” he adds. “I don’t think [the partisanship] is going to go as far as it has in a lot of places.”
Dutson, the Republican operative, agrees. “I don’t think Maine politics is going to devolve into a Donald Trump-Paul LePage thing going down the road,” he says. “But in order for that not to happen, we have to be more aggressive in articulating the ethos we have had here for a long time.”
[Editor's note: The language regarding the results of the 2010 governor's race has been clarified.]