Many observers are noting that Maine's elections this cycle have become quite boring.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and Republican Paul LePage shake hands following a debate on Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s 2022 elections feature high-stakes races between longtime rivals. Turnout should be high. From the Blaine House to the Legislature, spending will shatter records.

But if you chat with political observers here, something usually comes up about the interplay between the big-name candidates: These elections have been kind of boring.

Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage have jousted more in attack ads than by trying to seize daily headlines. They have each run low-risk campaigns, turning what many thought might be a raw race into a more sterile affair. A swing-seat congressional race has been marked as much by national arguments as the candidates’ unique attributes.

There are a few theories behind why 2022 is a slower campaign. Well-known candidates mean fewer undecided voters than usual. Maybe a clashing group of issues is overshadowing personality politics. The top-tier Democrats, Mills and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of the 2nd District, have also led comfortably in public polls, although at least the latter race should be a tight one.

“I really thought last year at this time, it was going to be a barnburner and a real donnybrook, but it’s anything but that,” said Mike Violette, a longtime conservative radio host.

LePage and former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin have baggage as longtime Republican political players. LePage has long commanded a loyal base that has always measured short of a majority. Poliquin has struggled more with that crowd and has attached himself to LePage this time in hope of winning back the conservative district.

Mills and Golden occupy a different place. Both have frustrated progressives at times, but the congressman has stepped out further by opposing President Joe Biden’s key spending proposals, though he recently supported the Inflation Reduction Act and has weathered attacks from Poliquin for voting overwhelmingly with his party.

Since the traditional start of busy campaigning in early September, Mills’ office and campaign have notified the press of eight sets of public events. LePage has had five events since last month after an early campaign marked by under-the-radar appearances. Though the famously media-averse politician has had more back-and-forths with reporters than Mills has lately.

Golden and Poliquin have been out and about but even scarcer by that measure. The congressman was taped shotgunning a Bud Light at the University of Maine’s homecoming football game in Orono this weekend. Poliquin’s Twitter feed has pictured him at restaurants, fairs and businesses, often hitting inflation issues he and Republicans are running on.

Incumbents generally run more cautious campaigns. LePage’s strategy may have been based on the “2.0” version that his allies teased before he formally ran, saying he was calmer and more policy-focused after a well-known history of offensive remarks. His one major trail outburst came when he threatened to “deck” a Democratic tracker in August.

The amount of time that LePage stuck to that surprised Mark Brewer, a University of Maine political scientist who said it resembled the strategy of a favored incumbent like. If he were LePage, he said he would have rejected the idea and tried to seize the spotlight more.

“I’d be like, ‘I’ve never lost an election, right? I’m a winner. I’ve always won and I’ve won the same way,” Brewer said. “‘So that’s how I’m going to run this one.’”

But relatively boring elections do not mean they are not important. LePage and Mills have battled publicly since he was governor and she was attorney general and hold opposite views on the role and on subjects from health and welfare to climate. The race between Golden, Poliquin and independent hopeful Tiffany Bond is one of the 30 or so at the center of House control.

Spending on the elections also has been high. The governor’s race alone has drawn $13 million from outside groups as of Sunday, nearly as much Maine saw in all elections for state office four years ago. Millions more are expected in the 2nd District and Democrats have already poured $2.2 million in outside money into controlling the Maine Senate.

Fewer fireworks does not mean lower interest. More than 85,000 Mainers had requested absentee ballots as of last week. Republicans say voters at their doors are focused on pocketbook issues, such as heating their homes. Since the high court’s abortion decision, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England reported 20 percent more volunteers than it had in the preceding year.

People could find themselves voting for big-name candidates or simply against others. What is clear is that voters’ lives have “changed radically” since the last election and this one matters, said Dan Ankeles, a Democrat running unopposed for a Maine House seat in Brunswick.

“I think it’s a well-worn path that these candidates have traveled,” he said.

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...