As goes Maine, so goes the nation once again?

Posted Tuesday, November 6, 2012 in Politics

by Wayne Sheridan

For many years, Maine held gubernatorial elections in September, and the vote was usually predictive of the national results late in the fall; therefore the phrase, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” This year the old phrase may have regained some of its historic significance.

Maine, geographically large, with a land mass larger than all the other New England states combined, but with a small, dispersed population, may seem an unlikely key player in the 2012 elections. Maine has only four Electoral College votes, and all polls in the second week of October place the state firmly in President Obama’s column. But a combination of historical anomalies, a notoriously independent electorate (the largest block of voters are "undeclared," or independent), and a convergent clash of new political movements, may be pushing Maine to the forefront this November. Decisions on such key national issues as which party controls the Senate, whether Maine will become the “next Wisconsin,” whether Maine will be the first state to adopt gay marriage by popular vote, and, yes, in a very close presidential election, as one of the only two states that split its Electoral College votes, who sits in the White House in January, may possibly rest in the hands of Maine voters.

Six months ago the Republican Party seemed to have a clear path to gaining control of the Senate; then, unexpectedly, a sure Republican seat was put in play when popular, and shoo-in for re-election, moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe decided to retire, in the midst of a primary that she was winning decisively. Snowe cited “gridlock in Washington” as her prime reason for leaving. In most states this would set up a direct clash between two new candidates, one from each major party; but not in Maine, where a plurality of voters are independents. This left an opening for a strong independent, quickly filled by popular former Gov. Angus King (1995-2003), who won election twice running as an Independent.

After tough primary ballots, two other viable candidates emerged: accomplished liberal Democrat Cynthia Dill, and centrist, but moving right, Republican Charlie Summers, a former top aide to Snowe. A true three-way race might have given Summers a real chance at winning the Senate seat, although considered within the moderate tradition of Snowe, Sen. Susan Collins, Maine’s other Republican senator, and the legendary Margaret Chase Smith, he is clearly to the right of the other two candidates.

However, King, although an independent, has endorsed Obama twice, and his wife, Mary Herman, worked for the 2008 Obama campaign. Although King has not explicitly named the party he would seek to caucus with if he wins the Senate seat, it is assumed by most analysts, and apparently the national Democratic leadership as well, that he would caucus with the Democrats. (While living in Maine for eight years, I had the opportunity to get to know former first lady Mary Herman when we worked together on a number of statewide and regional committees, and, to an extent, the former governor as well. I am not as thoroughly convinced that King will caucus with the Democrats under any and all circumstances. The overwhelming odds are he will go that way; but he is a Maine-first person, and is also quite ambitious; if caucusing with the Republicans will provide more clout to help Maine, and perhaps further his own political ambitions, I believe he might opt for that unexpected direction.)

With King leading in the polls by double digits, until a recent poll shrunk that lead to around 8 percent, over second-place Summers and distant Dill, the national Democrats have taken the unusual move of not endorsing any candidate, even their own openly selected in the Democratic primary; thereby giving credence to the assumed wisdom that if King wins, he will caucus with the Democrats. Since King’s lead has gone below double digits in at least one poll, the National Democratic Senate Committee has committed limited funds to anti-Summers ads, but little or none directly to Dill. They have apparently learned that after Tea-Party-backed Republican candidate Paul LePage won a close three-way gubernatorial race against  Democratic and Independent candidates (the Independent came in a close second) in 2010, it is better to be “anti-Republican” than “pro-Democrat,” especially when the Independent seems to be leaning your way. Likewise some Republican supporters have been running pro-Dill ads, in the hopes of drawing some votes away from King, which can only benefit Summers. King is still the clear favorite; however, as the gap has narrowed, more Republican money seems to be flowing to Summers. The race could be tighter than anticipated.

When Gov. Paul LePage took over the Blaine House in 2010, during a national Republican, Tea-Party-led surge, the Republicans also captured both state legislative houses for the first time in decades. This has led to a decided legislative and regulatory turn to the right, with the governor, and his sometimes reluctant colleagues in the Legislature, pushing an agenda that might, at least so far, be called “Wisconsin lite.” However, if the Republicans maintain control of both houses, LePage pledges to push through an even more ambitious conservative agenda over the next biennium. Democrats are pulling out all the stops to at least recapture control of the state Senate.

Maine awards two Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate who wins the majority of statewide votes, and one each to the winner in each of the two congressional districts, the solidly liberal southern 1st District, and the much more conservative northern 2nd District. The president is ahead in both districts; but it is close in the 2nd. With hotly contested New Hampshire geographically contingent with most of Maine, and each sharing media markets, there is a viable chance the 2nd District will give a slight majority to Mitt Romney, thereby giving him an unexpected, and possibly crucial, Electoral College vote.

Finally, but perhaps most significant, on the November ballot is a statewide referendum seeking to reverse a 2009 people’s referendum that overthrew the Maine Legislature’s previous approval of gay marriage (with Democratic and Catholic Gov. John Baldacci’s compliance, reversing his previous pledge to veto such legislation). If pro-gay marriage forces are successful, Maine will be the first state to enact gay marriage by popular vote, with enormous national implications. Right now, approval of gay marriage seems likely, with gay marriage leading in the polls, and with the pro forces so far out-raising the anti’s by a huge margin of 8 to 1. However, in the 2009 vote, gay marriage led in the polls right up to the end, and the pro forces out-raised the anti’s by a significant margin; yet, gay marriage was then defeated 53 percent to 47 percent.

In 2009 the Catholic Diocese of Portland took a very active, public role in opposing gay marriage; contributing staff, volunteers and funds (some of which were raised nationally) and joining with other organizations, primarily conservative Protestants, to fund a statewide advertising and promotional effort. Today, the diocese is without a resident bishop, as former Bishop Malone has officially taken over the Diocese of Buffalo in New York after a papal appointment, before a replacement had been named. He remains “administrator” of the Portland Diocese (which encompasses the whole state).

The diocese is taking a more low-key approach this year, aimed primarily at Catholics — to educate them on the importance of traditional marriage, and, at least indirectly, to try to influence their vote in the new gay-marriage referendum. The diocese had received a great deal of criticism, both from within and without, on the aggressive, and expensive (given the poor state of diocesan finances) effort made to repel gay marriage in 2009. It is unclear how this new approach will affect the vote for or against gay marriage this November. Twenty-five percent of Mainers identify themselves as Catholic, in one of the most secular states in the nation. (In contrast, in a recent poll, only 1.8% of residents of Maine’s largest city, Portland, identified themselves with any religion.) In addition about 40 percent of Mainers are of Franco-American descent, with historically strong Catholic cultural ties.

Mainers are notoriously independent and often ticket-splitters. Likewise, Catholic Mainers do not often vote as a block, even on issues like gay marriage. (A significant number of Catholics have organized in support of gay marriage, and they were recently addressed by Baldacci, who signed the original gay-marriage bill into law.) Nor do Franco-Americans, at least historically and nominally Catholic, vote as a block today, as they often did  in the past — supporting the Democratic Party, because of the real and perceived discrimination on the part of  Republicans, including the notorious Vice President Blaine. This year may be different. With gay marriage on the ballot, with a Franco-American governor opposed to gay marriage and a staunch Tea Party Republican, and with his agenda on the line in the state legislative elections — and with perhaps the control of the U.S. Senate up for grabs — choices made by Catholic voters in Maine may prove decisive.

In November, “tiny” Maine may affect the political history of this country, perhaps as much as it did in 1820, when the former Massachusetts territory split and joined the United States as a free state in the famous, Civil-War-delaying Missouri Compromise.

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