The recent elections in our state were nothing short of a progressive wave. Maine voted to re-elect President Barack Obama, elect Angus King to the U.S. Senate with more than 50 percent of the vote, return Democrats Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree to Congress with wide margins of victory, and decisively pass same-sex marriage.
Most interesting to me were the huge Democratic gains in both chambers of the Legislature. As I’m writing this, the results aren’t yet final but it appears that there will be around 87 Democratic members of the House (along with a few progressive independents) of 151 seats total and 19 or 20 Democratic Senators (and one independent) in that 35-member body. The two years of Republican control are over.
It’s obvious that this will mean a big difference in how things work in Augusta.
Rather than Gov. Paul LePage setting the agenda, he’ll now have to decide whether he wants to work with the new legislative leaders or attempt to obstruct and veto their efforts.
But how did this happen? There are three obvious causes.
* As the other statewide results show, and previous elections have proven, Maine is a progressive state. Maine people care about fairness, strong communities and economic opportunity. It’s hard for conservative candidates to swim against that tide.
But that’s not the whole reason. As we saw in 2010, conservatives can succeed if they’re well-organized and have a strong message. The lopsided spending by outside groups in their favor that year didn’t hurt, either.
* Candidates win when they talk about fundamental values and show the strength of their convictions.
The Democratic candidates who won this year in swing or previously Republican districts weren’t the most bland or middle-of-the-road. That’s not what voters want, and, in fact, some candidates who relied too heavily on their moderate images lost their seats. The winners were the ones who were willing to hear and consider all sides and then stake out their positions based on a strong, internal moral code.
This year, the backbone of these candidates was matched by their party.
Every election, Republicans attack Democrats about taxes, and this year was no exception. They claimed Democrats wanted to raise taxes on health care (even though Republicans had done just that last year). They claimed candidates who were concerned about the environment wanted to raise gas taxes. They even made up random new tax increases that haven’t been proposed and sent a flurry of attack mailers with scary headlines and blurry photos.
This year, however, both Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party stood their ground on the issue of tax fairness.
Having obviously seen the polls showing a huge consensus in Maine and nationwide against continued tax breaks for the wealthy, they weren’t afraid to talk about a more equitable tax system to fund the programs that people care about.
They also weren’t afraid to take the fight to the Republicans — nearly every mailer and ad they ran against Republican incumbents faulted them for voting in favor of huge new tax cuts for the wealthy.
I was particularly impressed with two candidates, Geoff Gratwick and Colleen Lachowicz, one a physician and the other a social worker, who made health care a centerpiece of their campaigns for the Maine Senate. Both focused on the crippling effects the Republican health insurance rate increase bill has had on small businesses and the need for better, more affordable care. Both won by wide margins over incumbent Republicans, despite PACs funded by Anthem insurance spending heavily against them.
* The hard work of the candidates and their supporters. Local campaigns are won by knocking on doors (and having something worthwhile to say when the door is answered) and Maine progressives knocked on far more doors and made far more phone calls and other personal contacts than conservatives did this cycle.
Some of this was due to good organization, but mostly it’s blood and sweat. The candidates led the way.
One Democrat, Senate candidate Colleen Quint, reports having knocked on more than 10,000 doors in her district. Those doors obviously made a difference. As I write this, she’s ahead in her race over a Republican incumbent by a just a few dozen votes.
The work these candidates did, the values they hold and the supporters and volunteers they inspired changed the political face of the state. Together, these factors have created the opportunity for a fresh start in Augusta.
Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes a blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He’s @miketipping on Twitter. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org