Now that the final legal hurdle has been overcome, the referendum on whether Central Maine Power can construct a transmission corridor looks to be set for the November ballot. This moment has been a long time coming, as the corridor proposal has been the subject of a fierce, nasty political fight for years. We’ve already seen TV ads and lawn signs popping up all over Maine regarding this issue, so it’s understandable if it feels like it’s the campaign that would never end. In fact, though, it’s the campaign that would never begin: The decision by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to let the question remain on the ballot marks the formal start of the campaign.

With the campaign formally underway, it’s the time to take a look at where the dividing lines might be this fall. The first thing that’s clear is that it won’t be a purely partisan issue by any stretch of the imagination: Both the current governor, Janet Mills, and her predecessor, Paul LePage, support construction of the corridor. When bills have been debated regarding the corridor in the Legislature, Republicans and Democrats haven’t clearly split along party lines. As just one example, L.D. 640, which would have required an additional study of the corridor, easily passed in the Senate but only narrowly passed in the House. House Republicans mostly opposed the bill, but Democrats were more split, with a quarter of them opposing it. Eventually the legislation died because it didn’t have enough support in the House to be passed as an emergency.

Expect those complicated politics to continue well into the campaign. Although Mills has formally endorsed the proposal, it’s unclear whether she will be involved in coming to its defense. Indeed, it would be wiser for her to avoid the referendum campaign as much as possible for a whole host of reasons.

She’s certainly going to be busy enough, not only in her immediate response to the pandemic but also in her ongoing response to the economic downturn accompanying it. Spending her time campaigning when she’s not on the ballot herself could well be seen by the public as an unnecessary distraction. As a newly elected governor still in her first two years in office, she’ll have relatively little political capital to spend on the issue – and if it loses, it could well affect her re-election efforts. She risks alienating not only independents who oppose the corridor, but members of her own party as well.

We are unlikely to see LePage spending a lot of time campaigning for the corridor, either. Since Republicans aren’t completely united on the issue, he could hurt his own future electoral prospects, if he really is interested in running for office again. The same is probably true of most local legislative candidates: Unless they’re passionately for or against the project, they would be better off staying out of the campaign entirely.

As for the environmental community, it’s not entirely clear how much they’ll get involved, either. A number of Maine environmental groups oppose the corridor, but since it helps get clean energy onto the grid, some former state environmental leaders support it. This isn’t an obvious battle of business versus the environment, like with previous referendums on clear-cutting or Maine Yankee. Not only do some environmentalists support the project, but its opponents have corporate backing as well. Mainers for Local Power, one of the groups opposing the corridor, has received over half a million dollars from Vistra Energy and Calpine Corp, energy companies based in Texas. If you find it difficult to believe that Texas energy companies are interested in preserving the rural beauty of western Maine, you’re right: They own natural gas plants here and could be hurt financially by the corridor.

Last year, it looked as if Central Maine Power’s dwindling reputation in the state might well doom the corridor if it went to a vote. Opponents could have made the case that, even if environmental impact weren’t a concern, Maine should have held out for a much better deal from CMP. Circumstances have rapidly changed, however, and the package that looked less than appealing before could more closely resemble a lifeboat in a storm today. Just as Mainers narrowly approved an Oxford County casino during a time of economic uncertainty follow a recession, they might well be willing to approve the corridor given the economic challenges we now face – even with their recent misgivings about CMP.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
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Twitter: @jimfossel