As the first snows arrive and the temperature hovers around freezing, it’s likely that in homes from Caribou to Kittery, piles of campaign literature from the U.S. Senate race are making good kindling in Mainers’ wood stoves. The state’s most expensive and negative race in history is also kindling an overdue conversation on how politics as usual is failing both candidates and communities in rural America.

It’s easier to grumble about the current state of politics than offer a compelling alternative. Yet through her campaign for Maine State Senate in District 13, 26-year-old state Rep. Chloe Maxmin has done just that. Contrasted with Sara Gideon’s consultant-driven campaign, the climate activist’s upset victory in a conservative district demonstrates the potential of deep canvassing, an organizing model rooted in community, grounded by authentic conversations, and centered on local issues. As a young activist with a deep love for my rural hometown, I am inspired by Chloe’s organizing philosophy and want to share more about deep canvassing and its potential to uplift communities in Maine and return politics to the people.

The 2020 Maine U.S. Senate race provides a case study on how not to run for office in a rural state where voters have a keen radar for inauthenticity and short patience for political platitudes. Post-election analysis of the race in The New York Times confirmed what we in Maine knew all along: voters were turned off by Sara Gideon’s campaign, a top-down operation supported by $52 million from out-of-state groups and characterized by tepid policy positions, national politics, and a barrage of negative ads and glossy fliers. Voters found the campaign’s outrageous advertising spending vile at a time of crisis as many Mainers struggle to put food on the table. Gideon’s stinging loss was a symptom of the conventional way politics is done — a status quo that is failing communities and candidates alike.

Chloe Maxmin’s campaign for state Senate could not have been more different. In 2016, she ran for state representative from her family’s farm in Nobleboro, becoming the first Democrat to ever win House District 88. This year, compelled by “love of home,” she ran a positive campaign in a close race, toppling Republican Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow and building a broad coalition including endorsements from prominent Republican community members. Her organizing strategy grounded in “reinventing politics as public service” and building a rooted movement proved pivotal. While the Gideon campaign blasted airwaves with attack ads, 200 volunteers with Chloe’s team used campaign resources to contact over 13,500 seniors, coordinating food and prescription deliveries amid the pandemic.

Authentic conversations were the lifeblood of Chloe’s organizing strategy. Rather than simply asking voters for support, Chloe asked to listen — building her platform around the struggles and hopes of her future constituents. Chloe’s platform could be described as progressive—she introduced Maine’s Green New Deal in the House, calls healthcare a human right, and has championed expansion of rural transportation. Yet all these policies have hyper-local significance and originated from the genuine conversations Chloe’s campaign had with the community.

Chloe’s campaign provides a powerful case for deep canvassing, a campaign philosophy that replaces the standard box-checking strategies used by the Gideon campaign with longer conversations focused on cultivating authentic relationships. Groundbreaking research conducted in rural communities by nonprofit People’s Action ahead of the 2020 election found that deep canvassing by phone is estimated to be 102 times more effective than standard persuasion tactics. Not only would this strategy help heal divisions and uplift Mainers, it also reveals how to build political power in rural communities — not by churning out ads, but by listening and showing up.

It’s past time that we re-root politics in community. Chloe Maxmin’s campaign in Senate District 13 shows that reimagining electoral organizing as public service is good politics, too. Voters and organizers throughout Maine and in rural communities across the country, take note.

Leif Maynard is sophomore at Bowdoin College majoring in government and environmental studies and a lead organizer with Sunrise Bowdoin.

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