Maine Democrats spared neither time nor money in their efforts to make the 2014 gubernatorial election a referendum on Republican Gov. Paul LePage. However, the consistently underestimated governor responded with a winning campaign that capitalized on the declining popularity of President Obama and wove an economic thread into the traditional hot-button issues of welfare and immigration.

LePage’s strategy did more than mobilize his base of supporters. It also drew enough votes in traditional Democratic strongholds to fend off a challenge from six-term Democratic congressman Mike Michaud.

In the aftermath, LePage rode a nationwide Republican surge and emerged with a level of voter support that only two Republican candidates for Maine governor have enjoyed in 44 years. He can now claim a conservative policy mandate that he will use to pursue his agenda with a Legislature that is narrowly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

LePage’s re-election may prompt navel gazing, internal changes and a reassessment by the Maine Democratic Party. Democratic losses Tuesday can be partly attributed to an unpopular president, public unrest over the economy and Republicans’ successful effort to leverage public dread over issues like the deadly Ebola virus. But LePage’s passionate message and its resonance with voters may require Democrats to at least recalibrate how they sell their policies to Mainers.

For now, however, the election is about LePage and how the hard-charging governor defied pundits who predicted his demise.

LePage, 66, performed as expected in rural precincts in the interior and Down East. On top of that, the governor did well in populated southern Maine and, in some cases, beat Michaud in coastal towns that traditionally swing Democrat.

LePage defeated Michaud in Scarborough, a bedroom community for the liberal enclave of Portland, picking up nearly 5,000 votes. In 2010, he received 3,400. Michaud carried blue-collar Democratic strongholds like Biddeford and Saco, but only by a combined 329 votes. The governor’s ability to penetrate those areas impaired Michaud, who needed bigger margins to absorb losses in many rural precincts.

Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said LePage benefited from a national wave that pushed Republicans to majorities in the U.S. Senate while holding a commanding majority of governorships. LePage was likely helped by an opposition that was divided between Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, Smith said.

However, he said LePage ran a campaign that touched the electorate’s concerns about the economy, a priority for voters in Maine and elsewhere.

“LePage was able to say that Maine is now in economically better shape than it was when he took office,” Smith said. “Whether he’s responsible or not is beside the point, but he can point to that.”

Smith also took note of LePage’s job approval ratings, which climbed during a series of three polls that the UNH center conducted for the Portland Press Herald between June and October. The change created a significant problem for Democrats, whose central argument on behalf of Michaud was that he wasn’t LePage. Michaud’s campaign rolled out policy agendas but never quite seemed to connect with, much less mobilize, voters.

“Democrats never really got behind Michaud,” Smith said. “He ran a poor campaign. I don’t think he was as combative as he needed to be. They assumed Gov. LePage was more unpopular than he actually was.”

Other Democrats who lost Tuesday are facing similar criticisms. In Colorado, for example, Republican Cory Gardner unseated incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Udall. Gardner ran a campaign that focused on the economy, while Udall’s message has been described as a one-note effort that attempted to mobilize women voters around the issue of abortion.

LePage’s campaign focused on reforming welfare, an issue that galvanized Republican voters. However, he also cast the issue, and immigration, in economic terms, saying he was trying to save Mainers’ money while helping the “truly needy.”

LePage was supported by the Republican Governors Association, a national nonprofit designed to elect and defend Republican governors. The RGA spent $3.6 million on political advertisements, part of $11.5 million in spending by outside interest groups seeking to influence the race.

A Press Herald poll conducted from Oct. 15 to Oct. 21 offered clues that LePage was connecting with voters. When asked which candidate best understands people like them, 41 percent said LePage, 28 percent said Michaud, 19 percent said Cutler, 3 percent said there was no difference and 8 percent were unsure.

Nearly half (47 percent) said LePage was a stronger leader, compared with 26 percent for Michaud and 14 percent for Cutler, with 1 percent saying no difference and 11 percent unsure.

The results also suggested that Democrats didn’t do enough to bridge the gap between Michaud and voters, even though most respondents said he was the most likable of the three candidates.

Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said LePage likely benefited from the national mood, too.

“To some degree it was the environment. It was a good night for Republicans. I mean, they ended up picking up a governorship in Maryland that no one saw coming,” Skelley said.

Smith agreed, noting that Republicans were now in possession of at least 31 governorships. Not only did they defend incumbents like LePage, who were presumed endangered, but they also added seats.

“It was not an anti-incumbent election, it was an anti-Democrat election,” Smith said.

Skelley said LePage’s surprising margin of victory could give him a mandate.

“I think it’s pretty impressive for LePage, given that people had written him off after the comments he’d made over the last few years,” Skelley said.

Roy Lenardson, a longtime Maine political consultant who worked on the legislative races, agreed that LePage will have a popular mandate. He said Republican lawmakers, including 43 freshmen in the Maine House of Representatives, will likely follow it.

“LePage had coattails. You have to give it to the guy,” Lenardson said.

He said he expected a more moderate governor in his second term.

“I think you’re going to see a very disciplined Gov. LePage,” Lenardson said. “I think the relationship he had with (New Jersey Gov.) Chris Christie and the national attention sort of brought him more into the fold of governing.”

LePage’s next four years will likely be marked by his effort to keep some of the promises he made on the campaign trail – to pursue welfare reform and regulatory changes and an improved business climate. There will likely be a number of surprises, too.

The governor has now secured two electoral victories by riding a passionate message of government reform and the personal story of his hardscrabble upbringing.

Will the arc of his political ambition end with his second term in 2019?

“He’s not a political schemer,” Lenardson said. “Look, he doesn’t keep any secrets, you know that. He blurts out exactly what he’s thinking. I think he’s thinking now that he needs to be governor for the next four years and then be done.”