November 24, 2012

ANALYSIS: Regional dissatisfaction with LePage spurred Democrats' resurgence in Legislature

Newspaper's analysis indicates voters in state's most populated regions were motivated to vote against governor

By Colin Woodard
Staff Writer

A backlash against Gov. Paul LePage in the more populous regions of the state and an overwhelming spending advantage for Democrats in key races were largely responsible for ending Republican control of both State House chambers this month.

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Gov. Paul LePage

AP file photo by Pat Wellenbach

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Susan Morissette

Staff file photo by Andy Molloy

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A Maine Sunday Telegram analysis of key state Senate and House races shows that Democrats capitalized on regional dissatisfaction with LePage and many of his signature policy initiatives in Bangor and in southern, central and midcoast Maine to unseat 14 incumbent Republicans and capture nearly a dozen open seats that had previously been occupied by Republicans.

They were able to use the polarizing governor as a fundraising tool, raising unprecedented amounts of money and using it to target Republicans in these regions. Ads emphasized Republican candidates' votes in support of contentious policies backed by the governor including a market-based health insurance overhaul, a tax cut that included cuts for wealthy taxpayers, an attempt to eliminate same-day voter registration, and the advent of charter schools.

"These campaigns weren't just about general ideas or philosophies, but about the specific votes these people had taken," said pollster Mike Tipping of the Maine People's Alliance, a liberal group that registered 4,000 voters across the state. "For the first time in a while, these elections were fought on specific issues."

Political commentator and former Republican state senator Phil Harriman said, "When you see the amount of money that was brought in and when you see how they used it, that tells me there was tremendous emotion and perhaps even anger toward the administration, and that was the DNA that enabled what we saw unfold on election night. They were able to use that emotion and anger to rally people to write big checks to implement their strategies."

Paralleling the national campaigns, Democratic groups in Maine successfully cast conservative Republican lawmakers as being in league with moneyed or corporate interests, and ideological moderates as helping to carry their water.

"There were Republican incumbents who were rubber stamps for the LePage agenda ... (which) sided with out-of state interests, not the state's interest," said Ericka Dodge, a spokeswoman for the Maine Senate Democrats. "We saw opportunities to find candidates who matched the values of these districts."

Incumbents overthrown

In the process, they overthrew four incumbent Republican senators, two of whom were in their first terms. Moderates Nichi Farnham of Bangor and Chris Rector of Thomaston were ousted alongside Lois Snowe-Mello and Thomas Martin, conservatives with strong tea party appeal.

"The governor is not very popular in my district," said Rector, one of five senators targeted by ads alleging they were rubber stamps of the governor. "I think a lot of the dissatisfaction people have with the governor are matters of style and approach as opposed to policy."

In the House the Democrats took down 10 incumbents, nine of whom were freshmen and eight of whom were rated as having very conservative voting records by both the liberal Maine People's Alliance and Maine People Before Politics, an activist group closely aligned with LePage. Republicans were able to oust only one incumbent Democrat, former House speaker John Martin of Eagle Lake in far northern Maine.

Democrats also took 11 open Republican seats, while independent candidates captured two more. Nearly all of these were in districts in central or coastal Maine or Bangor. Republicans took just six open Democratic seats. The Republicans are increasingly becoming the party of the so-called rim counties in western, northern and eastern Maine, the Democrats dominant in the other, more populous regions.

"We felt we had the right message, but they were able to outspend us in some races," said Republican Senate leader Michael Thibodeau of Winterport. "For decades Democrats have tried to foster a welfare state, and voters rejected that message in 2010 and I don't think they've changed their mind."

(Continued on page 2)

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Ryan Harmon

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