Now that the calls have stopped, the signs have been (mostly) picked up and Maine has gotten its first statewide snowfall, it’s time to turn our focus toward the next elections.

At the national level, the Democratic Party seems to be facing a rising battle between its more cautious, establishment wing and an emerging radical, activist wing. This will be a major issue for Democrats not only as they choose their presidential nominee to take on Donald Trump, but also here in Maine as they take full control of state government for the first time in almost a decade.

While the activist wing of the party no doubt helped fuel Democrats to their victories this year, they may also cause headaches for leadership in the future. This newly energized, more extreme wing of the party isn’t content to simply wait their turn: They’re perfectly willing to run against longtime incumbents in primaries in an attempt to implement their agenda. If they continue in that vein, they may become the Democrats’ version of the tea party in the years to come.

We’ve already seen this dynamic at play to some extent in Maine, with the liberal wing of the party pushing referendums that haven’t been embraced by most top Democrats. They’ve had a mixed track record with that approach so far; even when their referendums have passed, they’ve often been rolled back by politicians in Augusta. Now that Democrats are back in power, they face the same question that Republicans did in 2010: Do they try to get as much done as they can in two years, or be more pragmatic in the hope of retaining power long term?

If the majority party overreaches, it risks re-energizing the minority. We’ve seen this on both sides of late. Democrats’ attempt to broaden the sales tax was overturned at the ballot box after opponents gathered enough signatures for a people’s veto campaign, as was the GOP attempt to end same-day voter registration. In both cases, voters not only overturned the policy they opposed, they punished the political party responsible for it in the next election cycle, booting them from power.

Those results would seem to speak to a more pragmatic approach for Democrats. They have to consider not only how overreaching on policy could cost them their legislative majority, but also how it might affect other races. Just as it was this year, in 2020 (and for years to come) the 2nd Congressional District is likely to be heavily targeted by the national parties. If Jared Golden’s apparent victory is upheld, he will need to immediately begin running for re-election. Democrats moving too far to the left in Augusta would hamper his campaign in the more conservative 2nd District, and that in turn could also imperil state legislators seeking re-election.

Just as Republicans did in 2012, Democrats will have a U.S. Senate seat to worry about in 2020, as incumbent Susan Collins is up for re-election. Right now, there appears to be a lot of energy and enthusiasm among progressives for mounting a serious challenge against her. However, while that grassroots enthusiasm might be a boon for whomever decides to run, the candidate probably shouldn’t come from the ranks of the far left. Mainers seem to value pragmatism and independence when it comes to their U.S. senators, so nominating a partisan liberal Democrat against Collins is likely to be a lost cause that could hurt other Democrats as well.

For proof of this, one need only look at the two recent Senate elections won by Angus King. Even with ranked-choice voting in effect this year, King’s liberal Democratic challenger barely broke into the double digits and was unable to hold him below 50 percent. If Democrats nominate a similar candidate against Collins, they’re likely to see a similar result, regardless of the national political environment.

Over the past eight years with Paul LePage as governor, much of the political atmosphere in Maine has been dominated by splits within the Republican Party.

The question for the next two years will be how effectively the Democrats can contain their own political divisions. If they can quietly resolve them behind closed doors, as they have in years past, they could consolidate power for the long term. If, however, their intra-party disputes continue to spill out into the open, they’re handing Republicans an opening to ensure that Maine remains a competitive swing state for the foreseeable future.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.


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