UPDATE: While this piece was with editors, Congressman Michaud decided to drop out of the race. This reduces the number of interesting permutations for the general election, although there are still plenty.This week has seen a series of election bombshells: Mitt Romney’s wins in Michigan and Arizona, Bob Kerrey’s decision to enter the Nebraska Senate race, and the retirement of House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier. But probably the biggest one — certainly the least expected — was three-term Sen. Olympia Snowe’s decision not to seek re-election in Maine.
The announcement set off a chorus of cheers on the left and howls of consternation in the middle. The right was more muted — somewhat happy to see someone they viewed as a RINO go, but worried about the effect the retirement would have on their prospects for retaking the Senate in the fall.
Let me say at the outset that, in the bigger picture, this is unabashedly good news for the Democrats. Snowe was not going to lose a general election in Maine; even in the terrible GOP year of 2008, her less-popular co-senator (Susan Collins) defeated a Democratic congressman by 22 points. Now the opposition party is favoured to pick up the seat.
With that said — and as I present this corrective to the conventional wisdom, please keep this thought in the back of your mind: “Trende thinks the Democrats are the favourites for this seat” — I think people misunderstand Maine, and overstate the Democrats’ chances of winning there. Rather than giving them, say, a 90 per cent chance of gaining the seat, I would probably place the odds around 60 per cent. These odds would probably decline even further if the GOP nominates a moderate, and further still if third-party candidates enter the race.
To begin with, when people think of New England, this automatically comes to mind: “blue states, except New Hampshire.” This isn’t really apt for Maine. Think of it this way: If I had to say the first word that pops into my head when describing Vermont’s politics, for example, I’d say “progressive”; if I had to do the same for Idaho, it would be “conservative.”
If I had to describe Maine, it would be “quirky,” a place that almost defies political categorization. In a lot of ways, Maine is a strange combination of progressive Vermont, upscale New Hampshire, and blue-collar West Virginia. Consider the following: It was Ross Perot’s best state in 1992; he almost won an electoral vote from the second district and finished second overall, ahead of George H.W. Bush. It has elected two independent governors in the last 40 years, and almost elected a third in 2010. Only one major-party gubernatorial candidate has won an outright majority of the vote since 1970. The state has backed the loser of every close presidential contest since 1916. It overturned the legislature’s decision to allow gay marriage in 2009, by six points. And so forth.
But rather than rattle off anecdotes, we can look at some actual data to demonstrate that this is really not a solidly blue state. The first chart shows Maine’s Presidential PVI since 1970, compared to the other New England states. For the uninitiated, PVI (partisan voting index) is how a state votes compared to the country; if a state votes 55 per cent for the Democrat, while the country votes 53 per cent for the Democrat, the PVI is D+2 (55 per cent – 53 per cent):
As you can see, Maine is more Democratic than it once was, but it isn’t overwhelmingly so. It’s D+5, which makes it more akin to Connecticut or New Hampshire than Vermont or Massachusetts. An analogue on the Republican side would be a state like Indiana or Arizona, where Democrats can be competitive statewide. Since we’re now talking about Nebraska (R+13) as a competitive Senate state, and Democrats keep talking up their chances in North Dakota (R+10), we can probably assume that Maine will be on the radar screen as well.
But even this obscures some of the complexity in New England, and probably overstates the overall Democratic tilt of Maine somewhat. Here’s the percentage of the state house and state senate for every New England state that the Democrats have controlled over the past 40 years. To help cut down on “noisiness,” this is a “three-year” rolling average (i.e., 2010 is actually an average of the Democrats’ share in 2006, 2008 and 2010):
As you can see, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have overwhelmingly Democratic legislatures, while Vermont and Connecticut are heavily Democratic, but distinct from the first pair of states. Maine is really more like New Hampshire in this respect: Democrats have performed well in the legislature, but haven’t really dominated it in recent years. This is important: It means that Republicans have a legitimate bench to draw upon, and that the state party is reasonably healthy and therefore can reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of an extremist candidate claiming the nomination.
Finally, let’s look at partisan registration:
As with most New England states, independents are the dominant political tribe in Maine, and these independents tend to lean Democrat. But not always — overwhelming support from these voters has enabled Susan Collins to fend off a succession of quality Democratic challengers.
But notice once again, unlike the other New England states, Maine has maintained a decent-sized Republican base. Again, it is probably more like New Hampshire than the other states in this regard, though it is certainly to New Hampshire’s left.
So in sum, Maine is definitely a Democratic-leaning state. But it is not heavily Democratic; I’d probably call it somewhere between purple and blue. It isn’t so far to the left that the Democrats can nominate just anyone and win.
Before looking at the candidates, it’s worth speaking briefly about the parties. Traditionally, the coastal towns were Republican, while the rural interior was more Democratic. The Democratic Party of Maine really was the house that Ed Muskie built in the ’50s and ’60s, and that party was blue-collar, pro-union, and somewhat more traditionalist on social issues. The Republican Party was traditional Yankee Republican; Snowe, Collins, and Bill Cohen are squarely from this tradition.
But as the national parties have changed, so have the state parties. The state Democratic Party is split between its traditional blue-collar base and its increasingly progressive base in urban areas (about one-sixth of the Democratic House caucus is from Portland or its environs). At the same time, the Republican Party is split between its traditional upper-middle-class base and its growing downscale “Tea Party” contingent.
These divisions are about to be laid bare in the parties’ primaries. On the Democratic side, both U.S. representatives have indicated that they will run. The 1st district representative is Chellie Pingree, who represents the southern portion of the state. Pingree is an attractive, energetic candidate who was first elected in 2008. But she is also very, very liberal. DW-NOMINATE, a method for measuring congressional ideology, rated her as the 46th most liberal member of the 111th Congress. Any number of stalwart progressives — Jerry Nadler, Henry Waxman, Lloyd Doggett, Nancy Pelosi — are rated to her right.
The truth is, this hasn’t played particularly well in her district, where she won in the good Democratic year of 2008 with 55 per cent of the vote, and the bad Democratic year of 2010 with 57 per cent of the vote. It’s not clear at all how she would play upstate then, in the more conservative, downscale portion of the state.
That area is represented by Mike Michaud, who won in 2002. Michaud was the 159th most liberal member of the 111th Congress, placing him in the right half of the Democratic Party. Michaud is something of a throwback to New Deal days: He’s pro-union and fiscally populist, but he is pro-life and pro-gun.
Rounding out the likely Democratic field is former Gov. John Baldacci, who also represented the northern portion of the state in Congress. Baldacci’s terms as governor weren’t particularly successful; he was saved in 2006 only when the Republicans nominated a weak candidate, and spent most of his term with an approval rating well below 50 per cent. But he has some tangible accomplishments to sell to the state’s Democratic Party; in particular, he signed the gay marriage law.
How this plays out is anyone’s guess. My bet is that Baldacci and Pingree split the progressive/New Democrat vote in the state, allowing Michaud to squeak through. Regardless, none of the candidates is a particularly great fit for Maine, especially depending on what the Republicans do.
Four years ago, the GOP wouldn’t have had a chance here, but they’ve actually developed a decent crop of candidates. State Senate Majority Leader Kevin Raye, who nearly defeated Michaud in 2002 and was angling for a rematch this year, is now considering switching to the Senate race. Former Ambassador Peter Cianchette, who lost to Baldacci in 2002, is considering a run, as are the state treasurer and secretary of state.
All of these candidates are somewhat to the right of Snowe on fiscal issues, but it is my understanding that they are still more in the Snowe mould on social issues. Raye in particular is pro-choice, and made that an issue in his race against Michaud in 2002.
Of course, the only declared candidate so far is Scott D’Amboise, a Tea Partier who few give much chance of winning a general election. Of course, this matters a great deal, because there are only two weeks to gather the signatures needed to get on the primary ballot. D’Amboise may well be the only Republican running by the time the filing deadline passes.
Further complicating matters, independent Gov. Angus King (who endorsed George W. Bush in ’00, then John Kerry and Barack Obama) is considering running, as is Eliot Cutler, who very nearly won the governorship in 2010. Both are quirky, moderate candidates who have nevertheless been able to amass a considerable amount of support in the state.
As you can see, the dynamics of this race really are extremely unpredictable. Consider the following possibility: The independents don’t get in, the Republicans nominate a pro-choice fiscal conservative like Raye, while the Democrats nominate Michaud. I honestly have no idea how you handicap that race — imagine the pro-choice groups lining up behind Raye, while socially conservative fundraisers struggle with whether to support him or Michaud.
Or assume that the Democrats nominate Pingree, who is probably well to the left of the median voter in the state (this is the problem that bedeviled Tom Allen against Collins in 2002). Then assume Cutler gets in, angling for the New Democrat vote, leaving the Republican to compete for the downscale vote.
Or imagine that Baldacci somehow squeezes through the Democratic primary, and that the Democratic standard-bearer has a 20 per cent favourable rating.
You can see how all of this goes. Of course, the Republicans very well might have D’Amboise as their only option, or he could emerge from the primary if too many moderates get in.
So factoring in the many possibilities right now, this race probably does lean Democrat overall. But once the primaries are concluded and independent candidacies are announced, it could swing wildly in any direction. This is really shaping up to be one of the better Senate races of the cycle.
This story was originally published by RealClearPolitics.
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