Congratulations to Republican Gov. Paul LePage and his team for a well-run, smart campaign. They never wavered on making government spending, welfare and immigration their galvanizing issues. LePage didn’t commit a major gaffe. His debate performance was strong, and he actually gained support during the race.

In the wake of Tuesday’s losses, the first instinct of Democrats will be to blame others: big money from away, independent candidate Eliot Cutler and a Republican “wave.” That would be both a mistake and a lost opportunity.

Democrats need to go back to the drawing board and take a hard look at their priorities, their messaging and who they’ve been nominating for higher offices. They need to look inward rather than outward. They promised to do that kind of “soul-searching” after 2010, but there wasn’t much evidence of it this year.

Those who can’t imagine why LePage was re-elected have not been listening carefully enough to Maine people. In growing numbers, Mainers are frustrated about the state’s economy and stagnation. In part, they blame a government that has outgrown our means and that cannot be sustained without continuing tax increases, which, in turn, hurt the economy.

The election of Paul LePage was made possible because of the growing perception that Democrats have forgotten the working people and taxpayers of Maine, and that won’t change until Democrats in Maine pay more attention to those voices, and actually do something about it. Rightly or wrongly, voters are coming to feel that Democrats are incapable of changing a government that they are so busy defending.

I wrote about all of this in a 2010 book called “Reinventing Maine Government,” which is available for free online. I didn’t write it for people like Paul LePage, who already believe it, but for Democrats who were willing to listen.

The conclusions were stark. As a percentage of our income, we spend far more on government that either the national average or similar rural states. Maine people know this, and they’ve been saying it. On Tuesday, they said it more loudly.

That’s good news for those who want a more pro-business and leaner government, but not good news on many other issues that are critical to Maine’s future. LePage’s thinking on growing the next economy, for instance, is outdated and overly simplistic. His views on education are more ideological than practical. He’s way off the mark on renewable energy and lacks an understanding of the looming impact of climate change on Maine’s heritage industries.

I grew up in a solidly blue-collar Democratic community, in a family of millworkers and farmers. It was a community that was grateful to FDR and adored JFK. On Tuesday, many of those once-solid Democratic voters cast their ballots for Republican Paul LePage.

The people of Maine are a hardworking bunch. Many struggle to make ends meet. They want a government that works as hard as they do and that focuses on education, roads and public safety. They’re all for helping the less fortunate, but not for helping those who are abusing the system.

Democrats have not been listening.

The Democratic Party must adapt to the new realities of the 21st century. They should take the lead in reforming government and social programs, to boost their efficiency and reduce their cost. But they’ve been unable to do that, partly because they are too closely tied to the defenders of the status quo.

The current primary system strains out new ideas in favor of safeguarding conformity and party orthodoxy. That leaves creative, change-oriented Democrats to either run as independents or change their positions to align with the party’s interest groups and insiders.

Neither choice is allowing new ideas and talent to grow within the party. That, in turn, too often produces nominees for higher office who are either safe insiders or unelectable ideologues.

Any organization, whether in business or politics, that fails to refresh itself with new ideas and new talent is in the process of dying.

The Democratic brand is tarnished right now, and that has become an anchor that is dragging down its best candidates. The way to rebuild that brand is to foster real debate about the party’s direction. Welcome new ideas and new approaches. Listen to what Maine people are saying. Then go back to the drawing board to find a new understanding of what government can do and what it can’t do to grow the economy and to move beyond the public works strategies of FDR’s New Deal or the social program approach of LBJ’s Great Society.

In other words, create a new, 21st-century Democratic Party before it’s too late.

Alan Caron is a partner in the Caron & Egan Consulting Group in Freeport. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

 

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CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at 12:01 p.m. on Nov. 21 to clarify that only some Democratic voters in Waterville voted for LePage. The city went for Michaud.

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