November 4, 2010

LePage rides rural Maine to Blaine House

Eliot Cutler's early lead, courtesy of urban voters, fails to hold up as small towns decide the race.

By John Richardson
Staff Writer

Most times Maine elects a new governor, the winner emerges early in the counting.

That didn't happen Tuesday.

The early results, from cities and large towns that have automated ballot counters, gave independent Eliot Cutler the lead.

But the late results, from small towns that hand-count the ballots, slowly and steadily lifted Republican Paul LePage into the lead.

In the end, rural Maine chose the state's next governor.

"With the exception of sort of the area right around Portland, LePage got virtually every town with a population under 1,000," said L. Sandy Maisel, professor of government at Colby College. "More than any election that I can recall in Maine, it was a rural-urban split."

The demographic divide appears to reflect the national wave of frustration with government spending, a feeling that is strongest in rural areas that have been hit hardest by the recession, observers said.

Political scientists also pointed to other factors that turned the long race into a narrow LePage victory: the collapse of Democrat Libby Mitchell's campaign, negative advertising that may have backfired, and the fact that Cutler's surge came after tens of thousands of Maine voters had cast their ballots.

The rural-urban split is not entirely new to Maine. But it has been less of a factor in Maine than in many other states.

"We normally have not had a real sharp division in most of our elections along those lines," said Kenneth Palmer, professor emeritus at the University of Maine. That is why the candidate who gets the early lead on election night usually keeps it, he said.

Cutler won big in Cumberland County, with 41 percent to LePage's 30 percent. That kept the independent in the lead for most of the evening, until LePage inched ahead near midnight as the smaller towns started reporting hand-counted ballots.

Cutler also won the coastal counties of Sagadahoc, Waldo and Knox.

LePage won coastal Lincoln and Washington counties. But his strongest showing was in the rural interior of the state, including Androscoggin, Somerset, Franklin and Piscataquis counties.

The split was clearly not north-south.

Cutler won Bangor and Brewer, for example, but LePage's lead in the surrounding small towns gave him Penobscot County.

And while Cutler won Biddeford and Saco, LePage won York County by carrying the small towns near Maine's southern border.

Cutler's loss of York County had a lot to do with Mitchell's success there. Mitchell got 24 percent of the vote in York County, more than in any other county.

The rural-urban split can be explained in part by the candidates, said Mark Brewer, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine.

"Rural voters looking at Eliot Cutler were probably unlikely to see one of them," Brewer said.

Ads focusing on Cutler's experience as a lawyer, his wealth and his connections to China likely made him less appealing to rural voters, Brewer said.

Although LePage has been a small-city mayor, his background and style were more likely to appeal to rural voters, Brewer said. "They can look at him and say, 'He could be one of us."'

The rural economy may have been an even bigger factor in the split.

"Economic downturns are always felt more in small towns," said Michael Franz, assistant professor of government at Bowdoin College.

And anti-government sentiment and enthusiasm for the tea party movement are stronger in hard-hit rural areas, Brewer said.

The Maine counties with the highest poverty rates and reliance on benefits programs, including welfare, all went for LePage, who has promised to create jobs and set tighter limits on public assistance.

LePage's base of support included all seven Maine counties where more than 50 percent of schoolchildren receive free or reduced-price lunches: Aroostook, Franklin, Oxford, Piscataquis, Somerset, Waldo and Washington.

(Continued on page 2)

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