Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Once upon a time, Maine voters had it easy.
They could work their way through the maze of names on the ballot and evaluate who they wanted to represent them in Washington and Augusta, or they could just check the "big box" and vote a straight, party-line ticket.
Getting rid of the "big box" was a major electoral reform of 1972 and has cemented Maine as a state of ticket-splitters ever since.
Even though the box has been gone for a long time, some Maine Democrats are acting as if it was still around.
Every time Gov. LePage shoots off his mouth, they lick their lips and count the days until they can take back the Legislature and put LePage on defense for the next two years.
But LePage's name will not be on the ballot this year. Anyone who thinks it will be easy for Democrats to take back the Legislature has not been paying attention to how legislative races are run in Maine.
Members of the Republican majority have all the advantages of incumbency that Democrats used to enjoy, and they are not going to be easily pushed aside just because some people don't like the governor.
Democrats are talking tough in public but privately are lowering expectations for 2012, despite having likely winners in their candidates for president and Congress.
Good or bad, the top of the ticket does not dictate how people will vote further down the ballot. There is no more big box.
Part of the Democrats' problem is just math. House Democrats will have to hold the seats of retiring members in historically swing districts while trying to take at least three seats now held by Republicans. And they have to pull that off after failing to run candidates in nine districts.
A House takeover is possible but difficult – more like an off-balance three-pointer than a slam dunk. Picking up four seats in the 35-member state Senate will be more like a heave from half-court at the buzzer.
Then there is geography: There are a lot of Democrats in Maine, but they tend to live in clusters. In the more rural 2nd Congressional District, only four of 19 state senators are Democrats. Of the 75 House members in the 2nd District, only 25 are Democrats.
"The Democrats have become the party of Portland," crows Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster. "Outside of Greater Portland, they don't represent the state."
Control of the Legislature will be won in 186 different elections, each with its own dynamic. People vote for the guy who coached their kids' Little League team or the woman who came and knocked on their door.
The best-known and the hardest-working candidates usually win these races, which tend to be decided by name recognition more than policy.
Candidates rarely even put their party affiliation on their literature. When they campaign, they all claim to be independents (when they get to Augusta, it's another story).
And if that kind of campaigning doesn't sound high-minded enough, remember this: While a lowly House race might not have the glamour of a three-way battle for the U.S. Senate, it may have even more impact on most Mainers' lives.
Let's flash back to January 2011 and remember what made LePage's entry into Augusta so historic.
It wasn't just that we had a Republican governor: The Blaine House shifts hands among the parties fairly regularly. The last six governors have included two Democrats, two Republicans and two independents.
What was historic was that for the first time since the 1960s, a Republican governor came to office with a Republican House and Senate, and was able to get most of his agenda passed.
The advantage in the Legislature wasn't overwhelming, but it is enough to elect the speaker of the House, Senate president, attorney general, state treasurer and secretary of state, and pass the controversial bills, like LePage's "welfare reform," which saves money by leaving 27,000 low-income Mainers without health insurance.
While other states were designing health care exchanges, Maine was suing the federal government to end "Obamacare." While other states were investing in jobs of the future through R&D, Maine was harrumphing about too much borrowing.
The Democrats' ability to contest the LePage agenda will be forged this summer as the candidates knock on doors and shake hands in shopping centers.
It won't be decided by the next gubernatorial outburst. On the November ballot, there is no big box.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org