In this June 30, 2021, file photo, Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a press briefing in Augusta. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — After winning the key Virginia gubernatorial race on Tuesday, Republicans teased nationalization as a potential theme of next year’s biggest gubernatorial races, including the one in Maine between Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage.

Maine is one of eight states with Democratic governors up for reelection next year where President Joe Biden won with a similar or smaller margin in 2020 than in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin beat former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The Democratic president won Virginia by 10 percentage points last year, while he won Maine by 9 points. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, narrowly secured a second term that he was expected to win easily.

Tuesday’s election was an ominous sign for Democrats going into a midterm election that is typically difficult for the party controlling the White House. It came after Biden’s approval ratings slid steadily since mid-August as his party squabbles over a massive spending proposal.

Republicans were quick to paint the Virginia race’s results as a backlash against Biden and a bellwether for Mills. While Maine has reliably reelected incumbent governors during the modern era and there are recent examples of voters rejecting nationalization here, some Democrats were sounding the alarm ahead of another fraught election here.

The results in Virginia and New Jersey showed a frustration among suburban voters who might feel disaffected as they question the validity of ongoing pandemic restrictions in schools, said Jeremy Fischer, a former Democratic lawmaker and lawyer. Others could be supporters of universal prekindergarten and child care assistance — key parts of Biden’s spending agenda — that could tune out of elections if they feel alienated by progressives, he said.

“If I were a Democratic governor in a state like Maine, I would be paying a lot of attention to what’s going on in New Jersey and Virginia in the suburbs,” Fischer said.

The comparisons come as Mills faces a stiff challenge, though they may not fit neatly. For one, McAuliffe lost after staking much of his campaign on tying Youngkin to former President Donald Trump. The Republican focused on education and parental rights in a state where those have been far larger issues during the COVID-19 pandemic that they have been in Maine.

Mainers also reelected U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in 2020, turning back a heavily nationalized Democratic campaign against the Republican. The state has not ousted an incumbent governor since 1966. Mills has also held generally higher approval ratings than the divisive LePage did during his tenure, though they slipped alongside other officeholders during the pandemic.

Republicans made their strategy clear Wednesday. The Virginia race showed voters “want more money in their pockets, an end to the overly-restrictive pandemic policies and safer neighborhoods — all things in direct conflict with [Gov.] Mills’ agenda,” Will Reinert, a spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association, said in a statement.

Mills’ vaccine mandate for health care workers, which took effect last week amid larger workforce shortages hitting the sector, has emerged as her major point of contention with Republicans in recent weeks. In a Spectrum News poll in September, 54 percent of voters said they approved of her pandemic management, while her approval rating was at 48 percent. Biden sat 5 percentage points lower nationally in the last two weeks, according to a RealClearPolitics average.

Bringing in national issues may not matter if there is no local element to anchor them. A Republican strategist said the strategy may be successful if big issues like the slow jobs market can be tied to local concerns like Mills’ vaccine mandate or tying inflation to the Democratic-led Legislature’s recent landmark bill that aims to shift recycling program costs to producers.

But the Democratic Governors Association rejected comparisons between Virginia and Maine, with spokesperson Christina Amestoy saying Youngkin’s stance as a political outsider gave him an advantage that Mills’ challenger does not have.

“LePage cannot run away from his record,” she said.