Joe Bouchard and Allan Haggan Jr. drove from Fairfield to Bangor on Friday because they wanted to represent a type of diversity in the Maine Democratic Party.
Their left-of-center politics have a characteristic Maine tinge: Among the top causes for the delegates to the two-day party convention were universal health care and gun rights, the latter of which they felt was a common attitude here but one not represented well in the national party.
“We really want to make sure that there’s visibility on where we stand across the board, across the whole spectrum and not just kind of a stereotype at a singular national level,” Bouchard said.
A wide-angled approach will be especially important this year for Democrats trying to maintain political power in Maine up against a midterm wall. With President Joe Biden suffering from low approval here and nationally, the state’s races for governor, the 2nd Congressional District and the Legislature are all expected to be among the most competitive in the country.
A poll released on Friday by Pan Atlantic Research found 60 percent of Maine voters put costs among their top issues, although that survey was mostly taken before a leaked draft ruling showed a U.S. Supreme Court ready to overturn federal abortion rights. Maine Republicans are building their case around Biden and the national economy in the campaign’s early days.
Democratic retorts have been Maine-focused. Before the convention opened, Bev Uhlenhake, the party’s vice chair, noted that while polls have been tight, Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, has been narrowly ahead of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage. She said it will be critical to remind voters of incumbents’ successes and build on concerns about the end of Roe v. Wade.
In a defiant speech hitting Republicans for “smoke and mirrors” in linking Democrats to high energy prices across the world, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who faces a tough reelection race against Rep. Sue Bernard, R-Caribou, decried pundits for calling the 2022 election “before the dice has even been cast.”
“We must be honest with ourselves about the fight that lies ahead, the fight for Maine’s future,” he said. “Because make no mistake, we’ve gone up against terrible headwinds before and our fate is not out of our control.”
Mills, who focused her convention address on controversial elements of the LePage era, has benefited from a wave of federal COVID-19 aid that has led to record surpluses. The Legislature recently passed a $1.2 billion spending plan including $850 relief checks for most Mainers.
The governor brushed aside polling questions Wednesday in Dover-Foxcroft, saying talking to voters was more important. She called the state of the economy “troubling,” noting the state relief checks. When asked what Biden or Congress should do to improve the economy, Mills said lawmakers could send even more money to states or pass childcare subsidies.
“I know that inflation is hitting everybody hard, and I know that the price of gas and heating oil is very challenging right now for everybody,” Mills said. “There’s not a lot we governors can do about the war in Ukraine.”
LePage has run mostly on fiscal issues, saying he would “fix the broken budget” in his Republican convention speech two weeks ago. But his party’s predictions of financial calamity in Augusta after Mills and Democrats sharply raised state spending after taking control of state government in 2018 have not come to pass in part due to federal aid.
Republicans are leaning into an unpopular Biden while hitting Democrats for a mix of successful and failed bills in Augusta that conservative lawmakers largely opposed, including a first-in-the-nation measure aiming to shift recycling costs from communities to producers that most Republicans deemed a cost hike and a small pet food fee increase spiked by lawmakers.
“They are responsible for the direction of this state and country,” Maine GOP Chair Demi Kouzounas said of Democrats in a post-convention statement. “They have failed.”
One Democrat who may have to be most on guard is Rep. Richard Evans, D-Dover Foxcroft. The physician’s 2020 victory ouster an independent incumbent was an upset in a deep-red district achieved in large part because second-place Republican Chad Perkins split the conservative vote in a race without ranked-choice voting. Perkins is running again in 2022.
While Evans said national issues are important, he believed voters could separate national problems from those he can affect in Augusta. He was confident he would be able to connect with challenges around poverty and health care to overcome grievances his party faces.
“The key is to pick battles that are big enough to matter but small enough to achieve,” he said.
BDN writer Valerie Royzman contributed to this report.