Even though Maine Republicans were denied legislative majorities and control of the Blaine House, they shouldn't merely try to get along with the majority party, Matthew Gagnon writes.
Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, looks through papers at his desk in the State House in Augusta on Aug. 26, 2019. Faulkingham is been chosen to lead the Republican caucus in the Maine House of Representatives. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Between 2011 and 2019, it was pretty good to be a Maine Republican. All across the state, Republicans were winning, and in many ways, it felt like a political realignment had started to take place. For years, many Republicans (myself included) made the argument that despite the recent dominance by the Democratic Party, the state was far more even-handed, politically, and Republicans should win far more often than they did.

Today, though, there isn’t much left in the wreckage of what was once a proud Republican Party in Maine after three successive shellackings at the polls in 2018, 2020 and 2022.

Now, Republicans are left to do some long-overdue soul-searching about not only why they lost, but also where they need to go in the future. In the next two years, there is really only one place that can help define what Republicans are, what they are about, and what their future direction is, and that is in the Legislature.

Since the election, there has been a housecleaning. In the Senate, the Republicans have turned to Trey Stewart and Lisa Keim to herd what is left of the red-colored cats still wandering the building. Both are smart, young, well-spoken and shrewd, and understand the difficult task they have been given.

In the House, the caucus has elevated Billy Bob Faulkingham as minority leader, joined by assistant leader Amy Arata. Faulkingham has already demonstrated a fairly skilled touch organizing his caucus, and like his Senate counterparts, he is fairly young, ideologically committed and should not be underestimated.

This is an entirely new group of leaders that represents a fresh start for the party. The challenge for them, though, will be how to navigate the position they are in successfully.

It is a pretty crummy place to be right now. Gov. Janet Mills has been comfortably reelected and likely believes very strongly that she now possesses a mandate. Voters handed the keys to government to her party in both chambers, in numbers that mean that they can more or less do anything they want, any time they want, and the Republicans can do very little to stop them.

So how do you effectively lead your party in a new direction, when you don’t have much visibility and you control none of the levers of power in government?

There is already a sense of fear — a powerful one — running through the remaining elected Republicans that suggests that they can’t be seen as opposing this Democratic-sponsored program or that proposal, lest they “lose the message war” and be accused of standing in the way of the government helping people.

This is why, in previous Legislatures, Republicans often sat stunned, unable to figure out what to do when Mills proposed massive budgets and countless programs. They would invariably just nibble around the edges of those proposals, because “it’s all we can do,” and instead tried to get a little attention for their own proposals that sought to use the framework of Mills’ ideas, but to “help them better” by shifting who was eligible for them, or how much was given to certain groups who were viewed as “more deserving.”

I see absolutely no evidence that any minority party — either one — has benefitted in any way from going along to get along with the majority. You really get nowhere from engaging in “me-tooism.”

For the Republicans in the Legislature now, I have advice.

Voting for a Democratic proposal because you are afraid people will hate you for being mean is a recipe for perpetual irrelevance. If you agree with the proposal, fine, there’s nothing wrong with voting for it. But if you don’t agree with it, but you are worried about how you’ll be viewed or perceived by voters for voting your conscience, you’ve already lost.

Voters don’t obsess over legislative votes, anyway. Politicians think that people are at home tracking bills and making mental notes of who “looks good” and who doesn’t with every vote. But it doesn’t work that way, and most of the blow-by-blow actions of the government are white noise to the public at large.

At the next election, like all elections, people will vote for candidates they identify with and feel are like them.

So, a better path is to differentiate yourself. Don’t be obstinate just for spite. But remember that you view things differently than the people in charge, and there is nothing wrong with saying so. Worry less about how things “look,” and try to be “about something.”

Republicans, and Democrats in other states where they find themselves in the minority, may find that standing up and being heard, even when they lose, will get them a lot further than being a low-calorie alternative to those in charge.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...