If you’re a fellow conservative reading this column, you’ve likely spent much of the past week celebrating our victories, and rightly so. 2014 was an excellent year for the Maine Republican Party, not only in terms of who won and who lost, but in the details. The margin by which U.S. Rep.-elect Bruce Poliquin and Sen. Susan Collins won and the breadth of Gov. Paul LePage’s victory are truly impressive.
However, as we celebrate those wins, a nagging question has been on the minds of many: How is it that Republicans were able to win a majority in the Maine Senate but not in the Maine House?
The first step in answering this question is in realizing that it’s the wrong question. The real question is twofold: How did the GOP win the House in 2010, and how did they win the Senate this year?
To answer the last part of that question first, Senate Republicans did not simply ride a wave back into the majority. As I’ve noted previously, this was not an overwhelmingly conservative electorate in Maine; there were highly competitive elections all over the state. The Senate Republicans won not by hoping for the best, but with a superb campaign plan that was well executed by leadership and staff. They recruited good candidates who worked hard all over the state. This allowed them to significantly expand the map, competing in — and often winning — seats that weren’t initially on anyone’s radar, in places like Lewiston and Waterville.
On the House side, they also ran a good campaign, but they faced a significant new obstacle this year. In 2010, almost nobody saw a Republican takeover of the Maine House coming — not even on the GOP side. This wasn’t pessimism, but realism: Republicans sat at 55 seats, and historically the Maine House did not see wild swings. Generally, 10 or fewer seats changed hands each cycle, so to build up from having 55 seats to having a majority (76) you’d probably need two cycles. Before 2010, the last time 20 or more Maine House seats had changed hands in a cycle was 1974.
To use a sports comparison, virtually nobody expected the Boston Red Sox to immediately rebound from their historically bad 2012 season with a World Series win in 2013. The expectation was that it would take the team a few years to rebuild itself into a contender, as is the norm in sports. It was a reasonable expectation for the Sox and for the House Republicans.
In 2014, though, both sides acted with the expectation that the Maine House would be in play, and that leveled the playing field overall. Democrats acted early to defend their incumbents when there was the slightest hint of danger to keep Republicans from pulling off ninja-style upsets. They and their allies used negative campaigning to attack first-time candidates, framing them as extremists, and tried to make their incumbents sound bipartisan and moderate. In many districts, this was an effective combination that stemmed the rising Republican tide.
Gaining 10 seats in the Maine House historically is a great success: from 1976-2008 bigger swings than that only happened twice. Moving forward, both sides should operate on the assumption that 2010 and 2012 were not a new normal, but historical anomalies that are unlikely to repeat anytime soon. Rather than asking why they couldn’t win back the House, Republicans should be asking how they can build on their success and continue moving forward in 2016.