Sometime early this year I looked at what was going on in the state and the country and decided that whoever won the Republican primary would be Maine’s next governor.

Because I wanted a say in that decision, I went to City Hall and changed my registration to Republican.

I say this not to tout my amazing ability as a kingmaker (My candidate, Peter Mills, who I still think would have made a fantastic governor, finished third), but because it was one of the last things I got right this political season.

The kind of Republican I thought was going to win was the kind that always wins in Maine, fiscally conservative but socially moderate, so I was expecting a Jock McKernan type. When Steve Abbott came on the scene, I thought he was a lock for the nomination.

I figured the Democrats would be looking for the kind of Democrat who could win a statewide race, which is a pro-business social moderate. Pat McGowan looked the part.

Well, Abbott and McGowan both finished fourth in their races, and I was just starting to get things wrong.

My biggest mistake of 2010 was underestimating the candidacy of Eliot Cutler. I know Maine has elected independents before, that we have more voters outside either party than in them, and that the two parties had nominees in Paul LePage and Libby Mitchell who were disliked as much as they were liked.

I also knew that Cutler came into the race with a passel of big policy ideas that addressed all of our biggest problems, including education, energy, economic development and government spending.

But I don’t think people vote for ideas. I think they look at the candidates and decide who they like first, and then study the policy.

And I didn’t see what was going to bring people over to this corporate lawyer with a seaside mansion who had spent a lot of time in Washington and China, but had never so much as served on a local planning board.

Cutler came within two percentage points of victory, so what did I miss?

One thing might have been the attractiveness of a “boss” in this time of anxiety.

Cutler has a booming voice and a command of the most complicated public questions. You could see him as the state’s boss.

If you add Cutler’s vote total with that of LePage, (whose boss resume includes city mayor and general manager of a company) it covers about three quarters of the electorate.

The other thing I missed was my second-biggest mistake: overestimating the Democratic Party.

This was a hard year for the Democrats everywhere, and losing an election is not a surprise. But they could have done better then they did.

LePage never polled above 40 percent, so there was an opportunity to put together a coalition of anti-LePage voters.

Mitchell had a registration advantage over the Republicans, enough money to get her message out, and was helped by LePage with a series of summertime gaffes.

The party organization needed to go after both LePage and Cutler on policy differences and let her make the positive case for why her four decades of public service were an asset, not a liability.

Instead, we got a slew of attacks on LePage from the state party that ran the gamut from on-target to just plain silly.

And when Cutler started to get traction, he became the focus of what were widely seen as unfair personal attacks, culminating in the infamous “fortune cookie” mailer based on an ethnic slur probably hurting Mitchell more than Cutler.

When Mitchell needed to knock one out of the park with a positive case for herself, she whiffed. Typical was a plan to make higher education more affordable by renegotiating the state liquor contract — probably a good idea, but not a bold, new idea.

Most of Cutler’s late momentum came from Democrats looking to stop LePage. Those voters could have come to Mitchell if the Democrats had run a better campaign.

After the June primary, I speculated that success by LePage would force Maine’s moderate Republicans in the U.S. Senate to move to the right.

I figured that after watching colleagues like Arlen Specter and Robert Bennett get knocked off by more conservative elements in their states, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins might want to head off a challenge by being a little more partisan. Right after I thought that, they both voted to filibuster a bill extending unemployment benefits and aid to state Medicaid programs.

My theory was looking good.

But then they proceeded to be the only two Republican senators to vote for financial regulation reform, and later voted to ratify the new START treaty. Collins led the effort to kill the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gays in the military (which passed with Snowe’s vote.)

That tells me that LePage’s victory in November may have changed a lot in Augusta, but hasn’t signaled a complete change in Maine. Regardless of party, most Mainers self-identify as “independent” and “somewhat conservative,” and candidates who fit that bill will be hard to beat.

But that sounds dangerously like a prediction, and I ought to know better than to do that by now.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481, or:

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