While Mainers were busy focusing on our own local races and the referendums on the ballot, other states across the country were busy voting, too. Most notably, Virginia and New Jersey held gubernatorial elections, and Republicans won in Virginia and did much better in New Jersey than anyone expected. National pundits were quick to see those results as a referendum on Joe Biden and a portent of things to come in next year’s midterms, and they may be right.

Last year, Biden easily carried Virginia by a 10-percentage-point margin over Donald Trump. While Republican Glenn Youngkin only narrowly defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe, he got 50.6 percent of the vote compared to Trump’s 44 percent – a 6-percentage-point swing. That might not seem like a large number, but if that many votes end up changing in Maine’s elections next year, both Jared Golden and Janet Mills could well find themselves suddenly unemployed.

Of course, we can’t simply extrapolate from the results in Virginia and New Jersey and apply them to other states next year. While the elections in every state every year are affected by the national political environment, the actual individual candidates really do matter. To be reminded of this, we need only look at the impact of wave elections right here in Maine.

In 1994, when Republicans swept to control of Congress nationally, John Baldacci was one of a few Democrats to pick up an open seat, against then-Republican state Rep. Rick Bennett, who later went on to be state Senate president and Republican Party chairman. In 2010, another wave election, even as Paul LePage won the Blaine House and Republicans finally retook the Maine Legislature, Democrats Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree both easily won re-election to Congress.

So, even if next year does prove to be a strong one for Republicans nationally, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be in Maine. To make sure it is, Republicans will have to find the right people to run for office – not just for governor and federal office, but for each and every district in the Maine Legislature as well.

Glenn Youngkin succeeded in Virginia not only because of the national political environment, but also because he was a newcomer to politics who could both secure the base of Trump supporters in the Republican Party and expand it. He wisely didn’t completely alienate Donald Trump or his supporters – he was willing to accept Trump’s support, but he didn’t totally depend on it. It didn’t hurt that Trump was willing to go along with this strategy, either: He didn’t insist on coming to Virginia for a large in-person rally, but instead endorsed Youngkin in a brief phone call. In this case, that level of support was perfect. It let Trump’s fervent supporters know that Youngkin was the right candidate without alienating other voters, and made the Democrats’ attempt to portray Youngkin as a Trump acolyte fall flat.

Maine Republicans need to do the same with Trump: Embrace him where he’s popular, but try to avoid mentioning him where he’s not. So, if you’re running in a state legislative district that Trump easily won, it might make sense to nominate a candidate who wholeheartedly supports him. But the same strategy won’t work in most of coastal or southern Maine, where Biden won. It’s important to know ahead of time that this strategy of avoiding or embracing Trump won’t work with everyone everywhere: There are voters in every district who will base their decision in all elections solely on how they feel about Trump. The good news for Republican candidates is that most of them can completely ignore those people. Even if you’re not a Trump supporter, you’ll never get the vote of people who really hate him; if you ever question him on anything, to some of his supporters that simply proves you’re not loyal enough.

Tip O’Neill famously embraced the axiom that all politics is local, and lately there’s been much commentary that the opposite is now true: All politics is national. The elections this year showed that neither of those analyses is completely correct all of the time. A terrible candidate who runs a lousy campaign, or who isn’t the right fit for his or her district, is unlikely to prevail regardless of the national climate. Similarly, the best candidate can win even in a lousy national political climate for their party. If they want to succeed, Republicans need to recruit more of the latter rather than the former or they won’t do well in Maine, even if it is a good year for them nationally.

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

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