Former Gov. Paul LePage talks with Mike Smith from Bangor as he pumps gas for him during a campaign stop on May 18, 2022, at the Dysart's restaurant and convenience store in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Chasms between the two major parties on the biggest issues facing Maine and the country are common. But this year, the number of high-profile topics are small and voters have starkly different motivations.

Take an Emerson College poll of Maine released Friday. Gov. Janet Mills polled at 53 percent to 41 percent for former Gov. Paul LePage, showing a much wider gap than the one found in two tight surveys last spring. The U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision ending federal abortion rights may be among the factors that have moved the race.

Diving deeper into the figures, you see interesting things. Despite LePage’s position, his fellow Republicans are the voters focused most on the dominant issue: the economy. Roughly 39 percent thought it was the biggest issue facing the state. It rises to 65 percent among supporters of former President Donald Trump. The other top issues overall are Democratic causes, with “threats to democracy” at 19 percent and abortion access at 16 percent.

The economy fades to 15 percent, or third place, among backers of President Joe Biden. Those Maine voters pegged democracy and abortion access their top issues. Those causes also seem to be motivating them more. A stunning 98 percent of voters who picked abortion as their top issue are backing Mills. Those who picked democracy stood at 78 percent for the incumbent. LePage was getting 69 percent of those who picked the economy.

Maine is sensitive to costs as a heating oil-dependent state with cold weather bearing down. Since the beginning of this year, Maine Republicans have put that issue at the front of their campaigns, linking state politicians to the unpopular Biden. But there is some evidence so far that Maine Democrats are not paying a heavy price, with a recent survey from the liberal Maine People’s Resource Center 40 percent blaming federal officials most for costs and inflation but only 2.6 percent predominately blaming state ones.

Undecided voters were breaking for LePage in the Emerson poll, so nobody should think this is a done deal. We should also remember that polling was rough here in 2020. But it remains odd to see the party with the inside track on a dominant issue struggling in surveys.

If Republicans are going to close the next seven weeks, their major challenge is driving home this issue or changing the conversation on a dime. We will see if they can do it.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...