People like to bury political parties. Only four years ago, after the Republican Party lost control of Congress and the White House, people said that Republicans had lost touch with the country, were on the wrong side of demographic trends and were destined to go the way of the Whigs.
Now Maine Republicans have a firm hold on the reins of power and it’s the Democrats, who are gathering in Augusta for their convention this weekend, who are getting the dire predictions.
Activists will no doubt leave town today with a sense of enthusiasm, but even the most enthusiastic will have to acknowledge that this is a party that is not connecting with the public in a fundamental way and needs to change if it’s going to regain a leadership role in state policy.
Two years ago the party’s candidate for governor, state Sen. Libby Mitchell, finished a dismal third in the race for governor when normally reliable Democratic voters abandoned their nominee for independent candidate Eliot Cutler.
That performance could be repeated this year, because the party’s best-known officeholders chose not to run for an open U.S. Senate seat, apparently crowded out of the race by independent former Gov. Angus King.
If something doesn’t change dramatically in two years, the party’s nominee for governor could again finish third, if, as expected, Cutler runs.
In a two-party system, can a party that continuously finishes third survive? The last Democrat to get 50 percent of the vote in a statewide election was former Sen. George Mitchell. That was in 1988, and Republican candidates have broken the 50 percent mark seven times since then.
Fortunately for Democrats, they have a secret weapon who won’t be attending this weekend’s activities. It’s Gov. Paul LePage, who has done more to galvanize Democrats than any Democrat has been able to do in a generation.
LePage, and his enablers in the Legislature, have given the Democrats plenty to run against this year even though the governor’s name won’t be on any ballot. Neither will a $20 million research and development bond, which the governor and 53 members of the House of Representatives don’t think the public is smart enough to vote on.
Voters will get to vote on four other bonds, which would make much-needed investments in roads, clean water, higher education facilities and public land, but the key word in this sentence is “would.” Regardless of the result of the vote, LePage swears that he won’t issue any of the bonds unless lawmakers meet his demands to cut spending elsewhere, once again holding the state’s economy hostage to the governor’s ideological agenda.
That gives Democratic candidates a lot to work with. They can also legitimately claim to be the more fiscally responsible party. The governor’s cuts to medical care for the poor will shift costs onto hospitals, private insurance premium payers and municipalities. And most of LePage’s highly touted tax cuts won’t go into effect until the next biennium, virtually guaranteeing another budget crisis.
This is a potent message to bring to the electorate, and a lot of Democratic candidates will be looking for pictures of their opponent standing next to the governor, if not, as in Bruce Poliquin’s TV ad, in a full bear hug.
But just being “not Paul LePage” is not an organizing principle for a party. This race for control of the State House will be divided into 186 separate elections in which the candidates who are best known and work the hardest usually win.
The Democrats have issues that should appeal to Maine’s struggling middle class, which is made up of people skeptical of government but who depend on it for roads, schools, affordable health care and other services. The question is whether the party will field the candidates to deliver the message.
This is not about a party platform — the Republicans have shown that no one cares about those documents. It’s about developing leadership that can speak to the voters about their concerns in a compelling way.
The Democrats will have to do that and do it quickly if they expect to change the way things are going to go in Augusta.