PORTLAND – Gov. Paul LePage’s leadership is changing the Pine Tree State’s tradition of public servants putting service before party. Beyond his crude language are policies with Republican legislative support that reflect a shrinking Republican national tea party extremism. This has altered what The Boston Globe described as Maine’s “model of practical governance.”
LePage’s reprehensible rhetoric makes the state look bad. But how, really, is that any worse than the chatter aimed President Obama’s birth, faith and racial identity? Name-calling comes with divided politics. Why else would Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree be called an outright communist by a Republican colleague?
As you read this, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives seems incapable of voting on an almost 70 percent U.S. Senate-supported comprehensive immigration bill. The reason is simple. It is what The New York Times editorialized as influence by “hotheaded” tea party members.
It doesn’t take much to figure out who the leading Maine Republican “hothead” is.
Like Republican state legislators nationwide, Maine’s Republican legislators are forced to tread lightly on a narrowing, but party-controlled, tea party base unalterably opposed to a changing American political center. The telltale sign of this demographic transformation was the last presidential election.
It showed a younger, more diverse and middle-class voter trend favorable to Democratic positions on gender, gender orientation, environmental protection, livable wages, gun violence and civil and immigrant rights. The political effect of this change has yet to take hold due to lower off-year voter turnouts that benefit the LePage types in the states nationwide and a Republican-gerrymandered House of Representatives.
The Republican influence of Maine moderate Republican leaders — like state Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, along with present and former U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe — is being tested. And they are losing. Witness the 95 percent success rate of the governor’s record-breaking 83 sustained vetoes coated with tea party red-meat messages.
The governor himself has even tripped over the right-wing wire. He was against Obamacare before he was for it. Now — thanks to tea party pressure — he is against it. That is, unless Democrats eliminate the civil right for employees to collectively organize or Maine Obamacare is forever federally funded. Reading between the lines of Sen. Katz’s critique of LePage’s uncontrollable rhetoric, one finds an obvious concern about an anyone-but-LePage movement among moderate Republican and independent-minded Maine voters.
Polls show that a critical voting niche of independent voters are actually shadow Democrats. Many of them are young, millennial voters like my adult children, who voted for Obama and are turned off by the LePage types. This emerging generation helped give Democrats control of the Maine Legislature.
More than 60 percent of Maine voters will not support LePage next year. For the Democratic legislators, the million-dollar question is: Will they fail to turn out in 2014 as they failed in 2010? As long as LePage continues with his hot-headed policies and polemics, the tea party base that nominated him over moderate Republican candidates in 2010 will be there next year.
Strong organizing was key to the Maine Democratic Party’s takeover of the state Legislature last year. Will LePage’s zero-sum policies and vetoes make 2014 voter turnout more like 2012 and less like 2010?
A key factor will be the degree to which moderate Republicans and independent voters abandon LePage and legislators associated with his leadership. The present outrageous Republican tea party policies emanating from Congress, Republican-dominated statehouses, plus the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court decisions, may be a major factor for 2014 voters.
Depending on turnout, voter support for LePage’s right-wing way in November next year will range from 30 to 38 percent. Tripped up this past session by the governor’s uncompromising right-wing rhetoric on debt and government spending, the Legislature relinquished too much influence to him on state policies like public schools and health care. Public school cuts and hospital debt, not needed public school investments and hospital costs, got the headlines.
Those days are over. Democratic legislators have begun to engage more actively as the 2014 elections approach us.
The Maine voter shift is clear. Obama and gay marriage won Maine with 58 and 54 percent of the vote, respectively. Whether the Maine Democratic Party can energize Maine’s independent and Democratic voters next year is another story.
One thing is certain. Independent-minded Maine voters will likely be more strategic in deciding their anti-LePage vote next year. Pundits see that drop-dead decision on Labor Day 2014.
Ralph C. Carmona of Portland is an adjunct professor at Southern Maine Community College.