Whether or not you think there are “Two Maines,” it may look like it in the new Legislature.
When the body begins regular business next month, about 70 percent of members living in Maine’s most urban counties will be Democrats and 70 percent in the more rural areas will be Republicans.
The GOP has found itself in the minority in southern Maine for a number of years. But it is the Democratic losses in rural counties that are most jarring. The number of Democrats in Maine’s rural half has declined to 18 from 22 last session and 26 the session before.
In the 2009-10 session, Democrats made up almost half of members in those counties, including Penobscot, Hancock, Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Washington, Aroostook and Piscataquis.
In a state where the urban-rural divide has proved a challenge to cohesion, an enhancing political diversion could widen that gap. Three counties — Oxford, Somerset and Piscataquis — don’t have Democrats in their delegation at all while Knox and Sagadahoc have no Republicans.
Fewer Democrats in the state’s rural regions could deprive those areas of services, former legislators from both parties said. And amid a session that has already seen a fierce debate over heating aid, it could reinforce political polarization.
Nowhere are the changes more clear than Aroostook County, where Republicans swept the county’s eight House races. Three-term Democratic incumbent David McCrea of Fort Fairfield won his district by more than 30 percentage points less than five years ago. But in November, he lost by 3.6 percentage points to pastor Rep. Mark Babin, R-Fort Fairfield.
McCrea said he campaigned hard, extolling his legislative accomplishments and background as a local educator for nearly five decades. But the only thing that seemed to matter to many voters was the D next to his name, McCrea said.
“I’m seeing my own party, the Democrats, becoming … maybe a bit more progressive,” McCrea said. “Which is throwing down a challenge to the conservative regions of the state saying ‘we don’t want to be part of the southern progressive game.’”
Even rural voters who once voted Democratic have become alienated from the party in recent years because of its increased emphasis on social issues, former legislators said. There is also a perception by many rural Republicans, several of whom live in economically depressed areas, that Democratic governance has failed — it’s a trend that has occurred nationwide.
“Democrats didn’t find candidates to run in a lot of districts,” said former mill worker Stanley Short of Pittsfield, who lost badly last month to Rep. Amanda Collamore in an area he had twice won in. “There’s just no chance of a Democrat winning.”
Short said the Democratic Party needs to show people in rural areas that they value them as much as their southern Maine counterparts. That would mean moving more to the center, he said, something he doesn’t believe will happen.
As the Legislature convened earlier this month, Democrats seemed keenly aware of that.
House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, made a point to emphasize the shared concerns of urban and rural Maine in her inaugural speech. In a statement, Ross said it was her “unwavering belief” that the strength of the collective experiences in the House would allow it to meet challenges such as housing affordability, education and addressing climate change.
“That will require finding common ground, treating each other with respect and always recognizing that everyone is here to create a just, healthy and more equitable Maine,” she said.
Forging a common path may be more important than ever given the distrust between regions. Many in Maine’s urban areas, including the vast Portland suburbs, feel the opposite way of their rural counterparts. They believe that the GOP has passed them by with candidates like former President Donald Trump and former Gov. Paul LePage, who they see as chaotic and extreme.
Amy Volk attributed the narrow loss of her Senate seat, which included Scarborough, Gorham and Buxton, to voter dissatisfaction with those two men. She was assistant Senate Republican leader when she was defeated by just 195 votes (out of more than 22,000) in 2018.
“Several times a week, I would have someone say to me at their doorstep ‘I love you. I’ve always voted for you, you do great work. But I cannot vote for a Republican,’” Volk said.
Along with the Democratic Party aligning itself more with the values of those in urban areas, Volk believes in-migration within Maine could be playing a role — liberal voters moving south and conservative ones going north. Indeed, many rural counties such as Aroostook County have seen residents with advanced degrees, a classic Democratic Party voting base, leave.
Still, many say that the political future isn’t set in stone as long as the right candidates are put up. For example, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden has rode his moderation and reputation for bucking his party to three consecutive victories across his mostly rural district.
“Partisan labels or party affiliations obscures the fact that most Mainers hold complex views and can’t be easily pigeonholed, either by the media or political operatives,” Golden said in a statement.
And while nine out of 10 Aroostook legislative seats are held by the GOP in the new session, the one exception is a big one: Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash. Jackson won last month in communities that have overwhelmingly voted against Democratic Maine Gov. Janet Mills and previously had gone for Trump.
Former Rep. Danny Martin, D-Sinclair, said the personal nature of Maine politics could not be understated. Candidate quality is a key factor that can overcome political trends, he said.
“Local elections are much different than folks running for governor or Congress,” Martin said. “People know you and they like you, they will support you.”
While a GOP legislator has not lived in Portland since January 2002, when moderate state senator Joel Abromson died in office, they continue to win seats in the Portland suburbs.
Republican Rep. Barbara Bagshaw, who did not respond to questions, won a Windham house seat that was among the most tightly contested in the state. House Assistant Minority Leader Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, said she and Bagshaw were examples of how GOP candidates can still win in southern Maine by running on their values.
Arata said mistrust in Maine goes both ways: rural Mainers often feel that city residents look down on them, while some of those same people don’t trust those with advanced degrees for their perceived lack of practical skills.
“If we’re going to get past this, we have to be able to respect each other,” Arata said.