A composite photo of Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, and New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN;David Lane / The Union Leader via AP

Gov. Janet Mills is again facing comparisons with her counterpart in neighboring New Hampshire as the coronavirus pandemic enters another phase ahead of a high-stakes election season.

The chair of the Republican National Committee  highlighted the strategy in a Wednesday fundraiser appearance, saying conservative governors have preserved their economies without hurting vulnerable populations. Meanwhile, Maine Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, criticized Mill’s decision to continue paying an extra $300 per person in weekly unemployment benefits, saying Maine missed an opportunity to improve its unemployment rate compared with New Hampshire.

But both states’ economic recoveries have continued to follow  similar trajectories. The governors put in place and lifted restrictions within weeks of each other in most cases. Their mannerisms may have differed, but their strategies have continued to earn them  net positive  approval ratings in their states.

How they handled the pandemic will be the highlight of both governors’ campaigns. Mills will likely face former Gov. Paul LePage next fall, while Sununu has not  quite ruled out challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan for her seat, a potentially  fierce matchup. With new coronavirus cases on the rise in both states spurring differing responses from both governors, their next moves will be critical to how voters see them in 2022.

A major recent difference is how the two handled a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, should wear masks indoors in areas where community transmission is high. Mills adopted the recommendations — and may reconsider them — but Sununu refused, saying it is up to people to  protect themselves by getting vaccinated.

The recommendations have spurred confusion since the metric changes quickly in a small state like Maine. Jeremy Fischer, a former three-term Democratic state representative and a lawyer at Drummond Woodsum, said it could frustrate Mills supporters.

“Asking all the people who did the right thing and changed their behavior to protect a group of people that haven’t done the same to mask again, that’s a hard sell,” said Fischer, who supports Mills.

While Mills initially ruffled some members of her party with her r egional approach to the virus, criticism of her pandemic strategy has largely come from Republicans. Matt Gagnon, the executive director of the Maine Policy Institute praised Sununu  for ending in June an extra $300 in unemployment benefits in an attempt to stimulate the workforce. Mills offered a   cash bonus to incentivize workers, something Gagnon felt was less effective.

At 2.9 percent, New Hampshire’s July unemployment rate was just under two percentage points lower than Maine’s. But the unemployment situation is influenced by many factors, and early data show states that ended those benefits early did not see a   boost in job growth in the short term.

Other indicators show similar recoveries. Consumer spending in New Hampshire is up nearly 15 percent from January 2020 as of July 18, with Maine just a percentage point higher, according to Opportunity Insight’s COVID-19 economic tracker, which tracks consumer credit card spending to gauge how the pandemic is affecting economic activity. Time spent outside the home in each state has also increased along similar rates, with Maine seeing a slightly better recovery compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Sununu’s office did not return a request for comment. Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said the governor’s approach to the pandemic has kept cases low and, in turn, made it safer for people to return to work. She also pointed to the return to former job search requirements and setting aside $20 million in federal funds to boost child care programs meant to help Mainers return to work.

Dave Carney, a political operative who worked on John Sununu’s 1980 Senate run and consulted on U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ last campaign, said Maine’s adoption of the federal CDC’s masking recommendations could deter unvaccinated people from getting a shot as both states struggle to close vaccination gaps.

Maine is outpacing New Hampshire in vaccinations, with 74 percent of adults being fully vaccinated here compared to the Granite State’s 68 percent,  according to the New York Times. The governors’ differences in how they approach masking will likely set the tone for their pandemic approaches going forward, something “every governor” is going to run on, Carney said.

While his critics have been largely Democrats, Sununu was also targeted by conservatives in a multi-week protest of masking requirements outside his house that led to him canceling his inauguration ceremony due to safety concerns.

Mindi Messmer, a former New Hampshire representative and member of the nonprofit NH Science and Public Health Taskforce, said Sununu’s approach ignored the increasing risk of the delta variant in New Hampshire and pointed to the virus’ effect on nursing homes, where 70 percent of New Hampshire’s virus-related deaths had occurred as of April. Maine, in contrast, has the fourth-lowest nursing home death rate in the country.

“The longer it takes to put strategies in place to stop the virus, the longer we’re going to be dealing with this,” she said.

The pandemic’s effect on the economy has been unusual, boosting the cost of used cars and increasing high income employment as the service industry sustained major losses, Yellow Light Breen, president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation, said. Although he said Mills’ approach to investing federal recovery funds will go far to support industries beyond the short term, the trajectory of the virus will be critical to how both state’s economies recover going forward.

“All of us expect some level of uncertainty,” he said.