Maine Republicans have been invoking President Joe Biden in early campaigns down to the State House level, marking a further trend toward nationalization in elections here.
The focus reflects wide dissatisfaction with the Democratic president, whose approval rating has dropped significantly in the past year. But it could be risky in Maine, a Democratic-leaning state that proved in 2020 to be one of the last bastions of ticket-splitting and where key political figures often distinguish themselves from the national brand.
“There’s going to be a degree to which people are going to vote Republican simply because they’re rejecting everything that Democrats have subjected us to over the last several years,” said Eric Brakey, a former Republican state senator and two-time congressional candidate is running to take back his old Auburn-area Maine Senate seat this year. “At the same time, though, Republicans have to have their own message.”
Maine should see competitive races up and down the November ballot. Gov. Janet Mills faces a challenge from former Gov. Paul LePage. Republicans are also looking to make gains in a Legislature under Democratic control since 2018. The 2nd Congressional District, currently represented by Democrat Jared Golden, is a top target for national Republicans.
Republicans have looked to tie Democrats in each of those races to Biden in recent weeks. The National Republican Congressional Campaign invoked Golden’s image alongside Biden in an ad released last week highlighting rising home heating costs.
In a statement after Biden’s State of the Union address last week, Maine Republican Party Chair Demi Kouzounas argued Mills and Biden were “indistinguishable,” citing inflation and “weak leadership,” among other issues. A fundraising email last week from Maine Senate Republicans’ campaign arm highlighted “Biden’s spending” as a driver of rising prices.
“Augusta Democrats are following their leader in making sure that life is more expensive for you,” the email said.
The attacks tied to Biden might have seemed out-of-place just a year ago. The Democratic president won Maine by 9 percentage points en route to a 2020 victory over former President Donald Trump, although the then-incumbent Republican still won Maine’s 2nd District and its single electoral vote.
Biden’s standing has slipped since he took office, however. Although Maine-specific polling is sparse, his approval rating nationally has dropped from around 54 percent in January 2021 to around 41 percent now, according to polling averages calculated by FiveThirtyEight.
Backlash against Trump likely contributed to Democrats’ wave year in 2018, when they took back control of the U.S. House and won full control of Augusta. Maine Republicans were quick to point to an upset gubernatorial victory in Virginia in November as a reason Democrats here should worry about 2022.
But tying individual candidates to national party figures has not always been a winning strategy in Maine. Democrats aggressively pushed to link Sen. Susan Collins to Trump in 2020, but she still won reelection even as the Republican president lost here. She trounced then-U.S. Rep. Tom Allen in 2008 even as Democrat Barack Obama carried the presidential election here.
Brakey, who finished last in the Republican primary to challenge Golden in 2020, said tying the Democratic congressman to Biden could be difficult. Golden had done a “decent job” of showing where he disagrees with other Democrats, Brakey said, noting his vote in opposition to Biden’s landmark budget bill last year.
He had sharper criticism for Mills, noting backlash to coronavirus-related mandates as an energizing issue for Republicans. The Democratic governor’s vaccine requirement for health care workers — similar to one Biden later enacted — has been a flashpoint this winter, with LePage saying he would repeal it on his first day in office.
Republicans have also attempted to link Mills and Biden on economic issues, with LePage’s campaign deriding the federal COVID-19 assistance powering a state budget surplus as “funny money.” Her allies have dismissed those claims, with a Democratic Governors Association spokesperson saying Republicans would simply “do whatever they can to distract” from Mills’ record in comparison to LePage.
Further down the ballot, Sen. Joe Baldacci, a Democrat representing Bangor and Hermon, said he did not expect ties to Biden to play a significant role in legislative races by Election Day. His seat leans Democratic, although it was won in 2010 by then-Bangor City Councilor Nichi Farnham, a Republican, in the party’s wave year that swept LePage into office.
“Mainers have an independent streak, so I think they’re going to look at the person and make judgments on that person instead of something nationalized,” Baldacci said.