It’s been less than 48 hours since the polls closed, and already a conventional wisdom is forming about the results that deserves some deep examination. Neither successful Republicans nor disappointed Democrats should leap to the easy conclusions about Tuesday — this would lead to both making mistaken assumptions about their future course.
The first picture emerging here in Maine is that this was a much more conservative or Republican electorate than usual, even than in previous midterms. However, a more careful examination of the results shows this isn’t the case. First of all, though Gov. Paul LePage was swept to re-election and the GOP seized control of the state Senate, the state House remains under Democratic control, even if with a reduced majority. This shows that Maine voters, rather than being completely caught up in the national Republican wave as they were in 2010, want to see the two parties work together in Augusta.
This was also reflected in the results on Question 1, which lost more narrowly than expected, and in the exit polls, which give us a clearer picture of the electorate. According to the exits, voters were 26 percent liberal, 48 percent moderate, and 28 percent conservative. They were similarly divided along party lines: 39 percent independent, 31 percent Republican, and 30 percent Democratic. This is a more Republican electorate than usual, but not overwhelmingly so; certainly it should not have been prohibitive to Democrats. Indeed, had you told a Democratic consultant two months ago that the electorate would only be 28 percent conservative, they’d be measuring the drapes in the Blaine House.
The fact that Mike Michaud was unable to pull out a win in this environment is not necessarily solely reflective on him, but also on the Democratic efforts as a whole. They made their entire campaign strategy based on opposing Paul LePage, rather than focusing on their own agenda for the state. This is a mistake that they likely would have made regardless of whether the candidate was Michaud, Eliot Cutler, or someone else entirely. Opposing Paul LePage has been the focus of the Democrats since at least 2012; it’s hard to switch gears on a dime, especially when that strategy won them the Legislature back two years ago.
Another assumption made before and after the election was that the bear-baiting referendum would be a driver of turnout. While it undoubtedly got some voters to the polls, it did not nearly change the shape of the electorate to the degree that was expected. Turnout was higher in the 2nd Congressional District than usual, but that can be attributed as easily to the congressional race there as to the referendum. The referendum undoubtedly played a role on Tuesday, just perhaps not the defining one many expected.
Tuesday threw much of the conventional wisdom about 2014 out the window. It was assumed by many that LePage needed Cutler to be in the mid-20s (at least) to win; instead he prevailed with Cutler collapsing to 8 percent. It was assumed that moderate voters were fed up with LePage; instead their support was evenly split. Many thought that LePage would need to turn out his base to win; instead he swayed a divided electorate to his side.
Mainers are divided politically, it is true, but preying on those divisions is not a strategy for success. Mainers will reward candidates from either party who work hard, are trustworthy, and present a positive vision for the state. That’s what LePage, and so many Republican candidates, were able to do this year, and they were rewarded for it this week. Now it’s up to them to follow through on that.