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Mainers could learn a lot from Ed Muskie. As a U.S. senator, Muskie led in passing major environmental legislation. Later Muskie served as President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state. After that, he was one of three people on the Tower Commission, established by President Ronald Reagan to review what led to the Iran-contra scandal. Just those activities add up to an impressive political career, but it’s well worth studying and contemplating what Muskie did before that.
What happened before Mr. Muskie went to Washington provides critical lessons for Maine politicians and political parties today. They’re worth attention from Democrats — who won all major offices and both chambers of the Legislature in 2022 — and from Republicans — who had a very bad election season and then selected conspiracy theorists and culture warriors to be their party leaders. The key year to learn from is 1954, when Muskie won the Maine governorship.
Because Maine Republicans had been the dominant political party, Muskie’s victory was surprising and made national news. As Doug Rooks noted in “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine,” Muskie made this observation in 1968, “We won against hopeless odds. We had no resources.” And, as those steeped in Maine political history know, Muskie and his compatriots were critical in making the Maine Democratic Party a force in the state.
One reason why Maine Democrats were weak is that they hadn’t reached out beyond their base. According to political scientist Richard Maiman, prior to the mid-1950s, the Democratic party “was basically a loose-knit collection of urban fiefdoms sustained by the votes of Franco and Irish mill workers,” as well as voters in the French-speaking St. John Valley.
At the same time, while most Maine voters had been voting Republican for a long time, the GOP hadn’t been particularly active. Don Nicholl, a reporter who became a Muskie aide described Republicans “as really afflicted with dry rot … with no strong grassroots support.”
So what did Muskie do? He and Democratic leaders asked for input from the public for its party platform and unveiled it the day before the 1954 state convention in an event at which the public and press could discuss it. Moreover, the platform wasn’t particularly ideological and included matters with strong support from most Mainers.
Democrats also worked on building their party at the local level. Their party chair Frank Coffin more than doubled the number of party municipal committees during the Muskie campaign, brought in national speakers and did extensive outreach to previously ignored areas. As Muskie explained, “We had to talk to Republicans who had never even seen a live Democrat in their lives.”
And Muskie was an affable, appealing candidate who told stories about his family and connected those to issues people cared about, whether in person or via television and radio.
What are some larger lessons for today?
One, Muskie’s win shows that party fortunes can change dramatically rather quickly. Before Muskie won in 1954, just one of the previous 10 elected Maine governors was a Democrat. Since then, nine people have been elected governor — two Republicans, two Independents and five Democrats. Thus parties can’t take voters for granted. It’s critical to keep — or at least start — talking to them. Local organizing matters.
Two, while having appealing candidates and doing a good job running campaigns are important, Muskie and Democratic leaders did more than that. They involved citizens and focused on issues that broad swathes of voters cared about and mattered for improving their lives.
Three, Democrats benefited from not engaging in slash and burn politics. Four years before Muskie’s win, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith told her fellow Republicans not to pursue “the four horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.” In 1954, Democrats followed Smith’s advice. They didn’t spin conspiracy theories or promote hate toward others.
While a lot has changed in our state and nation since Muskie’s big victory almost 70 years ago, these three lessons still apply today. Mobilizing voters is important — but not just one’s base — and candidates, issues and positive messages matter. That’s how Muskie and his fellow Democrats built a broad, winning electoral coalition and made their party a political force.