AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s low-key set of Tuesday elections came with a few surprises, even though it’s hard to draw long-term political lessons during an odd-numbered year.
The state’s politically unpopular electric utilities saw a dominant victory, while an ambitious mayor was dealt a big blow and virtually the entire Maine Legislature showed itself to be out of step with their voters on a couple of constitutional amendments.
Here were the three biggest eye-openers to me from the 2023 election.
The utilities won virtually everywhere, including hotbeds of past opposition.
If I told you two years ago that Central Maine Power Co. would mount a campaign that won almost every city and town in Maine, would you believe me? Probably not, since that was when the utility’s hydropower corridor through western Maine failed at the ballot box.
Yet that is what happened on Tuesday night. CMP and Versant Power, the state’s other dominant utility, got 69 percent of Mainers to vote down Question 3, a grassroots-led bid to buy out the companies and put the infrastructure under the control of an elected board.
Only a handful of Maine municipalities voted yes, including the liberal bastions of Portland and Orono. But it only passed in the state’s largest city by 163 votes at the end of a campaign in which the utilities outspent their opponents by nearly 40 times.
The remarkably even result exceeded the no side’s rosy internal polling. CMP’s side won in northern Maine and Down East. It trounced the yes side in the Portland suburbs. But it also won in Franklin and Somerset counties, where opposition to the corridor emanated from.
A mayor who got national attention fell flat in his own city.
Since Gov. Janet Mills and Democrats took over state politics in 2018, Republicans have lost a lot of ground. One of their bright spots was Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque, a former congressional candidate who was elected narrowly in 2017, won two more terms and got national recognition for his plans to expand housing.
Those same plans drew Jeff Harmon into city politics as a critic of proposed zoning changes around Lake Auburn. While the race was nonpartisan, Harmon, a Democrat who was deputy chief of the Maine State Police, won nearly 62 percent of votes in a dominating performance.
That was despite many plugged-in Republicans across the state thinking Levesque would win. He was also openly kicking the tires on a gubernatorial run in 2026, positioning himself as a hard-charging Republican who could get big things done. That is not totally out of the question, but it will be more complicated after Levesque lost his own swing city.
Voters hit back at their elected officials on constitutional changes.
Mainers defeated two of the four constitutional amendments on Tuesday’s ballot. While there are no practical effects from those outcomes, they were dramatic examples of how consensus changes from lawmakers can still fall flat with constituents.
Question 7 would have struck a part of the state Constitution that bars out-of-staters from circulating petitions to get items on the ballot, while Question 8 aimed to repeal a piece that bars people under guardianship for reasons of mental illness from voting.
Neither ban is in effect because judges have deemed them unconstitutional. Yet 68 percent of voters rejected Question 7, while a narrow 53 percent majority opposed Question 8. That was after virtually all legislators agreed to refer both of those items to the ballot at the urging of Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat.
The first one was more of a surprise, since voters in 1997 and 2001 rejected similar fixes on the guardianship issue. If policymakers are going to put forward fixes like this in the future, they may want to dedicate a little more time to outreach in order to not waste resources.
Correction: An earlier version of the story mislabeled Question 7 on Tuesday’s ballot.