Bangor residents vote at the Cross Insurance Center in Nov. 2, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik/BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine will see high-stakes congressional and gubernatorial elections this year as the COVID-19 pandemic hangs over state politics once again.

The Legislature will also take up a massive budget question when lawmakers return this week, while another energy referendum could be on tap later in the year.

Here are four Maine politics storylines to watch.

The COVID-19 pandemic rages

Nearly two years into the pandemic, Maine set records for COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations again and again throughout December. With the arrival of the omicron variant, the pandemic endgame is far away, but the politics have changed substantially in a year.

More than 80 percent of eligible Mainers have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and while vaccinations continue to drastically reduce virus risk, an increasing number of people are seeing breakthrough cases due to the more transmissible delta variant.

Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, has declined to bring back virus-related restrictions such as mask mandates that were central to Maine’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy in 2020, instead focusing on promoting the vaccine. Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, her 2022 opponent, is quick to say he is vaccinated while charting a hands-off pandemic roadmap, recently saying that Maine should not have worried much about spread among kids but instead have “let them all have it” to create immunity, a remark that was criticized by Democrats.

While COVID-19 restrictions are unlikely to make a comeback, the rapid spread of the virus is exacerbating many other issues, including supply chain problems, worker shortages and stress on Maine’s health care system. There will be a lot of talk about addressing each problem, but continued COVID-19 transmission will stymie solutions across the board.

What to do with a huge budget surplus

Maine and other states have emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic in stronger financial shape than many anticipated, largely because of massive federal assistance. But the state’s $800 million budget surplus is likely to be a source of political wrangling.

Possible uses include supporting health providers or other industries hit hard by the pandemic, funding for child care or other programs aiming to help adults return to the workforce or direct assistance similar to the $285 checks sent to working Mainers this winter.

Both Mills and Republicans have endorsed the concept of direct assistance amid concerns about inflation, but there have been few specifics. Expect it to be a hot topic when the Legislature returns in January. Depending on how the legislative session goes, it could end up being an issue in the gubernatorial race between Mills and LePage as well.

The next energy battles

The ballot question over the future of the Central Maine Power Co. — which set records for political spending levels in a Maine referendum — could be just a preview of energy fights in 2022 and beyond. Nearly 6 in 10 Mainers rejected the transmission line, although the project’s future remains up in the air as CMP challenges the referendum’s legality in court.

But the company’s troubles are far from over. CMP opponents are gathering signatures for a possible referendum to create a nonprofit consumer-owned utility that could end up on the ballot in November. The 2021 referendum could also have ramifications for other projects as well, as a proposal for a transmission line to connect Aroostook County to the rest of New England’s energy grid will now require legislative approval.

There is also a fight brewing over offshore wind. Following backlash from lobstermen worried about development, Mills signed a law this year prohibiting wind projects in state waters while moving ahead with a pilot project in federal waters. LePage will likely try to leverage fishermen’s concerns about new projects, but he also has a complicated history with coastal energy that included support for expanded offshore drilling under former President Donald Trump.

High energy prices this winter driven by the increased cost of natural gas only amplify questions about Maine’s energy sources for the future. If the high prices last, that will be a major issue at all levels of politics in 2022.

Nationalization of state and local races

A range of national issues could also have an impact in Maine. At the local level, candidates who attempted to highlight so-called “critical race theory” were largely unsuccessful in school board elections this year amid little evidence schools here are teaching it. But national Republicans continue to flog it and a small set of activists continue to be vocal about it here.

In the gubernatorial race, Republicans have looked to tie Mills to high inflation, although rising prices are an issue in every state and even globally. Abortion rights could also take on greater significance in the race between the pro-abortion rights Mills and the anti-abortion LePage if the Supreme Court overturns or erodes the landmark Roe v. Wade decision next summer.

The battleground race in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District figures to be a proving ground for nationalization, with Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, already facing pressure from his left for not supporting President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion spending plan. Former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican running again in 2022 alongside three primary opponents, has looked to tie Golden to national Democrats, but the incumbent’s votes against his party on several high-profile bills this year may make that difficult.

While there is a lot that can change, conventional wisdom suggests the national political environment would favor Republicans, the party out of power both here and in Washington in an off-year election. The balance between the national environment and local issues will be a significant factor in Maine races next year.