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In any election year, news coverage and commentary is dominated by talk of the “big-ticket races” that are the highest profile, and the most contested. In Maine this year, we have two marquis matchups in the gubernatorial race between Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage and in the 2nd District congressional race between Rep. Jared Golden and former Rep. Bruce Poliquin.
It isn’t exactly a shock that most of the attention is directed at races like this. After all, the amount of money spent on them is staggering, and all of that money translates into an avalanche of television, radio and internet ads, mail pieces, phone calls and door knocks. In just the governor’s race alone, outside groups have spent more than $10.7 million between September and Oct. 15 of this year. There will be a lot more spent in the final three weeks.
But as you watch the political wreckage pile up in that orgy of spending, you would do well to not forget the legislative races this year.
As Mills, LePage, Golden and Poliquin criss-cross the state shaking hands and kissing babies, would-be lawmakers in 151 state House districts and 35 state Senate districts are doing the same. You just don’t hear much about them.
Legislators run in small districts — fewer than 9,000 residents in the House and fewer than 40,000 in the Senate — and they have, generally speaking, a limited campaign budget, even with access to taxpayer funding through the Maine Clean Election Act. This means you generally don’t see them on television or hear them on the radio but instead see their lawn signs and maybe meet them in person. You might see them at the local grocery store or the town dump, if you encounter them at all.
Despite the small size of their districts, these lawmakers will play a critical role in state policy over the coming two-year cycle. They are ultimately responsible for the passage of the biennial budget, and are of course the body that proposes, debates and passes legislation originating from within, or from the governor’s office.
We saw, in the past two years, the consequences of a rubber-stamp Legislature. Mills had a comfortable and compliant Democratic majority during the COVID crisis, which seemed unwilling or uninterested in substantively legislating for an entire year. Once they did return to work, their main claim to fame was in the decision to passively let the governor continue to run the state without much of their input, and cramming through a highly partisan state budget.
It didn’t have to be that way, of course. Other states, even those run by a single party on either side of the aisle, managed to get their legislative bodies back to work quickly, and those bodies often asserted themselves against their state’s chief executive.
I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much about their timidity, though, because the Maine Legislature is also often the birthplace of horrible ideas. In 2019, 60 legislative Democrats supported a carbon tax that would have raised the gas tax by 40 cents, as an example.
But even if you like what our representatives in Augusta have been up to, it is undeniable that the choice you are about to make as to who controls the body will matter.
If you are a Democrat, you likely want to see Mills win her re-election. If that happens, but the Republicans win the House and the Senate, it will dramatically impact her agenda and ability to get things done in Augusta. The same is true in reverse.
If either of Mills or LePage wins and has their party behind them in the Legislature, they will engage in dramatic and sweeping policy reforms.
And make no mistake, the Legislature is a coin flip in both chambers this year. Democrats historically perform very well in the Legislature, but there are indications of trouble. A recent Princeton analysis of Maine’s new legislative districts suggests that the Democrats miscalculated in redistricting, and accidentally gave a structural advantage to the Republicans in both the House and the Senate. Beyond that, polling is indicating that Republicans are once again gaining a definitive edge nationally, as economic concerns continue to grow in the minds of voters everywhere.
So as you consider your ballot this year, pay extra attention to those legislative choices you are afforded, and choose wisely. The truth is, most of what happens in the next couple of years will be a result of this oft-ignored, under-the-radar battle for control in Augusta.