A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
The 2022 midterm election came with lots of hope for Maine Republicans looking to harness a roiled economy and high consumer costs to make gains in Augusta, but they were checkmated by voters on Tuesday.
Here are some of the lessons from the bad night for Maine conservatives.
Maybe running less-popular retreads wasn’t such a good idea.
At the ballot box and in approval polls during his eight-year tenure, LePage never cracked the 48.2 percent that he won statewide in 2014. After he lost to Golden in 2018, former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin was cited by the Maine Republican Party for having trouble with the conservative base.
His side clearly saw cracks there this time around, sending him often on the trail with LePage to ride coattails. One recent poll had Poliquin 24 percentage points underwater in popularity with 2nd District voters. That’s not going to play in a district that Republicans should win, all things being equal.
Party leaders made bargains that the two former officeholders would be able to gin up competitive campaigns the fastest, but their ceilings proved to be low, even if LePage has unmatched grassroots love. Mills’ approval rating stayed above 50 percent in polls, and her opponent was always going to have trouble.
See all the results of the 2022 elections in Maine and how your community voted.
LePage has so dominated Republican politics over the past decade that no prominent member of his party ever seriously considered running for governor this year. Poliquin’s candidacy drummed the young state Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, out of the 2nd District race after he declared last year. One has to wonder if a fresh face would have fared better against Golden. It looks like time for Republicans to move on from these two old hands.
Money was a big factor in legislative races.
Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and his allies beat their chests after he fended off a challenge from Rep. Sue Bernard, R-Caribou, and put the party on track to perhaps expand on their 22-13 Senate majority.
“Talking heads on television and pundits in the paper seem to have called the election before the die had even been cast,” he said in a statement. “And we — this extraordinary slate of candidates — said bring it on.”
In our pre-election coverage, we noted that the state Senate was generally seen as being tilted toward Democrats, while the House was more in the balance. But Jackson had reason to boast. His impressive performance included a shocking victory in Bernard’s hometown, which was won by LePage and Poliquin.
Still, the labor Democrat left out that he and his colleagues were supported by a flood of out-of-state money. Jackson’s race alone saw more than $1 million in spending, with Democratic outside groups spending nearly three times as much as Republicans to hang onto the chamber.
As Republicans like Rep.-elect Austin Theriault, a former NASCAR driver from Fort Kent, fared well in the St. John Valley, Jackson was able to defy a Republican trend. Plenty of that is due to his unique attributes and political skill, but you cannot separate it from money.
Republican underperformance in key areas was consistent.
At LePage’s party, shocked supporters raised the specter of voter fraud. The former governor did not. Nor did major signal boosters in the party, although outgoing Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, lamented the outcome on Facebook by saying, “No one can convince me elections are not rigged.”
This idea is absurd. LePage’s hard road to victory was easy to see early in the night, matching up with underperformance by Poliquin. For example, the Franklin County mill town of Jay was one of the earliest swing towns to report results. LePage and Golden won the town by similar margins after Mills won it in 2018, indicating Poliquin running behind him in key places.
Mills ran up her margins in the Portland area, something that should not be unexpected. She hammered LePage in Lewiston and Auburn. She won in conservative-leaning areas close to major cities, including Gray, Brewer and Hampden. LePage lost evenly divided Windham to Mills. He was never going to win this election without taking every one of those places.