Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who is running against Democratic incumbent Gov. Janet Mills in Maine's 2022 gubernatorial election, walks up to the podium at a press conference on energy policy in Falmouth on March 8, 2022. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

The share of Maine voters living in the suburbs has increased over the past decade, making for a potent political constituency set to play an important role in the critical matchup between Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage this year.

Maine has seen increasing geographic polarization over the past two decades, with coastal and southern parts of the state generally trending liberal while inland areas turn more conservative. It reflects national trends of growing conservatism among rural voters and a shift to Democrats in suburban areas, although Republicans are hoping to reverse the latter shift this year.

To what extent they are able to win back suburban votes in Maine could shape the tight gubernatorial race between Mills and LePage. Portland suburbs were among the places where Republicans made gains in 2010 when LePage took the Blaine House and helped him sustain his reelection four years later. But they have grown bigger and more Democratic since then, a challenge for the former governor’s return bid.

Between 2010 and 2020, Maine added roughly 34,000 residents on net, according to U.S. Census data. Just 10 fast-growing municipalities — Scarborough, Westbrook, Gorham, Saco, Wells, South Portland, Windham, Biddeford, Cumberland and Falmouth — accounted for more than half of the growth.

Each of those towns also trended toward Democrats in terms of voter registration over that time period. But not all are liberal locks, and margins could matter in a tight race. When LePage won reelection in 2014, he did it in part by keeping the race close in the Portland suburbs, winning 43 percent of the vote in Falmouth and 47 percent in Scarborough in a three-way race with Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler.

Mills won both of those towns in 2018. Since then, voter registration data suggests they have grown even more liberal, adding a combined roughly 2,600 registered Democratic voters.

But registration data is an imperfect indicator. Sen. Susan Collins, who won reelection with 51 percent of the vote statewide in 2020, won a majority of votes in Gorham, Windham and Wells despite now-President Joe Biden also winning each of those towns the same year and Democrats vastly outnumbering Republicans in registered voters.

A LePage spokesperson declined to comment on his approach to suburban voters, saying the governor’s campaign does not speak publicly about strategy. But LePage has looked to draw attention to certain issues thought to have driven Republican success in suburbs in other states, such as schooling, speaking frequently on the campaign trail about the need for a “parents’ bill of rights,” which he has vaguely explained as providing a mechanism to ensure parents are heard at school board meetings.

Former Maine state Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, is pictured in the Senate chamber at the Maine State House in Augusta on Aug. 30, 2018. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Nationally, there have been indications of suburban voters moving back toward Republicans, particularly due to frustrations about schools, noted former state Sen. Amy Volk, a Republican from Scarborough who won several competitive races elections before being ousted in 2018. But despite remote schooling in Maine during the pandemic, she has not seen such a shift in the Portland area.

“You could have people who haven’t voted Republican in a long time taking a second look at the Republican ticket, but personally, I’m not super convinced that that is going to be the case in Maine,” Volk said.

Polling so far has shown a tight gubernatorial race, with Mills leading by a few points in public polls but within the margin of error. The battle for control of both chambers of the Maine Legislature is also expected to be highly competitive, with recent generic ballot polling showing a virtual tie.

Drew Gattine, chair of the Maine Democratic Party and a former state representative from Westbrook who is running again this year, said there was not so much of a distinction between rural and suburban legislative districts, saying even some districts not far from Portland contain rural areas.

He dismissed the electoral impact of demographic changes, saying he did not think about the population growth in areas like his as “politically advantageous” for either party.

“There are some real practical differences between living in populated areas and living in less densely populated areas,” Gattine said. “But I think at the end of the day, people really want the same thing.”