After crushing electoral defeats in November, the Maine Democratic Party is in rough shape. Election results made it clear that the average Maine voter, outside of Portland, does not identify with issues and rhetoric that the increasingly progressive Maine Democrats have concentrated on. This disconnect creates a rare opportunity for Republicans to annex a key component of the Democratic coalition: organized labor.

In 2009, then-state Republican Chair Charlie Webster mounted a massive sign on the side of state party headquarters that read “Working People Vote Republican.” He had the foresight to understand that the modern Democratic Party has little in common with the broader working population of Maine.

Webster understood at a deep level that blue-collar voters have much more cultural commonality with Republicans than they do with increasingly progressive Democrat leadership.

This is more true today than it was then. The Maine Senate provides a glaring example.

Republicans elected Winterport’s Mike Thibodeau as Senate president. Thibodeau worked in construction for many years and now runs a snow shovel factory. His combination of business savvy and working-class mores makes him an understandable and identifiable figure to most Mainers.

Democrats, on the other hand, re-elected Portland’s Justin Alfond as their Senate leader. A Dexter Shoe heir, Alfond appears to split his time between Congress Street and the Portland Country Club. He couldn’t be more removed from working-class Mainers, and his political vision reflects his disassociation from the very people his grandfather employed.

This is just one example, but modern Maine Democrats have chosen figureheads and policies that increasingly separate them from Maine’s working people. Ground zero for this dynamic is organized labor.

Maine’s blue-collar union workers – from shipbuilders to firefighters – are demographically far more in tune with Republican principles than is commonly recognized. These hardworking people worry less about funding welfare programs than about keeping more of their hard-earned paychecks. Republican policies, such as reducing taxes and reforming welfare, make more sense to them than those of Portland progressive Democrats.

However, union affiliation with the Democratic Party continues, largely for one reason – Democrats have successfully made the case that Republicans are a threat to their ability to collectively bargain for their pay and benefits. And Republicans have reinforced this perception by targeting organized labor as the enemy of fiscal reform in both rhetoric and policy.

If Republicans could allay this fear, it could collapse a pillar of the Maine Democratic Party. Blue-collar union workers are demographically and ideologically ready to become a major component of the Republican coalition, but the Republican Party has to do one thing first: take “right-to-work” off the table.

Making Maine a right-to-work state – that is, outlawing mandatory union membership, even as part of an agreement between employers and unions – is considered the holy grail to conservatives. And there’s little doubt other states that have adopted this policy have seen stronger economies than ours.

But it can be argued that right-to-work classification is not as much a catalyst for economic recovery as it is a reflection of it. And it should also be closely considered whether the continued alienation of union voters through the existential threat of right-to-work is worth it in the long run.

Republicans would do well to focus on the incremental reforms that will clearly impact Maine’s economy – lowering taxes, reducing energy costs and continuing to make Maine government more friendly to job creators. There are gains to be made in all these areas, but it will take continued Republican political success to bring true reform. Diminishing Democrats’ leverage of organized labor to fight these reforms would be a huge step toward long-term Republican success.

We’ve already seen that this strategy can work: Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has incorporated labor voters – including all four unions at Bath Iron Works – into a coalition that has brought her unprecedented electoral success. And 2nd District U.S. Rep.-elect Bruce Poliquin seems to have gotten the message, with his campaign pledge to oppose national right-to-work efforts.

By turning over the direction of their party to fringe elements, Democrats have left the door wide open for a substantial exodus of working-class voters. Republicans can take advantage of this lapse in judgment by making the smart policy decision to steer clear of right-to-work efforts and focus instead on an expansion of our party that will ensure long-term political viability and, ultimately, the full economic recovery of our state.