Politics, like nature itself, abhors a vacuum.

While the passage of Question 1 may not actually end up killing the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC, aka “the corridor”), it will undoubtedly have ripple effects across the Maine political landscape for years to come.

Yes, the proponents of Question 1 promised that voting for it would kill the project, but the legal challenges and political maneuvering will drag on for quite a while. Just as they had a lot of money to spend on the campaign, Central Maine Power has lots of money to spend on lawyers to fight the implementation of Question 1. While the passage of Question 1 will certainly make the project more costly and delay it quite a bit, it’s not necessarily a true death knell. Maine has passed referendums before that allegedly killed development projects – at both the statewide and local level – only to see them go ahead anyway. We’ve also seen the reverse: There were a number of referendums to close Maine Yankee, the state’s sole nuclear power plant, that failed at the ballot box, but Maine Yankee eventually ended up closing anyway. So, don’t assume the fight over the corridor is truly over; instead, a new phase of it has begun.

The Press Herald editorial board was correct in their post-election pronouncement that the passage of Question 1 was a problem not only for CMP, but they didn’t mention who else it was a problem for: both of the major-party gubernatorial candidates.

Democratic incumbent Janet Mills and her Republican challenger, former Gov. Paul LePage, both supported the project, but the public didn’t really seem to care much about that. In an age of increasing partisan polarization about just about everything, it’s notable that this issue was completely nonpartisan: There were supporters and opponents alike on both sides of the aisle. The disregard by the public of Mills’ and LePage’s support for NECEC opens a new corridor in the gubernatorial election for an unenrolled candidate who was vehemently opposed to project from the very beginning. Ongoing legal challenges to Question 1 would only enhance such a candidate: The governor’s office wields a tremendous amount of influence over both that and the regulatory process, so having the Blaine House in their corner would be a huge win for Question 1 supporters.

Of course, an anti-corridor gubernatorial candidate couldn’t run on that issue alone: They’d have to craft a whole platform around economic development, climate change, recovery from the pandemic and more topics. While NECEC may have been an issue that rallied a vast majority of the state against the positions of the leaders of both parties, it’s not enough – on its own – to propel an unenrolled candidate into the Blaine House. After all, while voters may not have seen Question 1 as a partisan issue, the instant there’s an election with two party-affiliated candidates in the race, that changes. Since ranked-choice voting won’t be in effect for the general gubernatorial election, any unenrolled candidate would need to make it clear to voters that they’re not a waste of time.

Such a candidate probably won’t be able to find any more issues that LePage and Mills agree on, but they may be able to find some that both major parties in Maine have historically ignored. If they did, in a sense they’d be emulating the path that Donald Trump took to the White House. He not only lucked out by having an opponent who was widely disliked by both the public at large and even within her own party, but also seized on issues – like immigration and trade – that neither party had adequately addressed for decades. The key would be to identify issues that appealed to some segment of either party’s base but that weren’t publicly embraced by leadership. For a state-level example, take a look at ranked-choice voting: Democratic leadership initially opposed it along with Republicans; it became a truly partisan issue only after the referendum passed.

Even after the passage of Question 1, we don’t know a lot. We don’t know whether it will actually kill the project, or how quickly it will if it does. We don’t know how much of an effect it will continue to have on state politics. We do know, though, that it shows that some issues are still outside the realm of pure partisanship – and that represents an opportunity for some politician wily enough to seize it.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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