Terry Hayes is a former state representative, former Democrat

By itself, the decision by the incoming Republican caucus to nominate former Democratic state Rep. Terry Hayes as state treasurer might seem like a small thing. It’s a relatively minor post, after all, a legislatively elected position that serves an important function in state government, but one that the public doesn’t typically care about.

But Hayes’ nomination could signal something more politically significant for the upcoming session, particularly if Democrats can’t re-elect their choice, current Treasurer Neria Douglass. Or for that matter, Attorney General Janet Mills and Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.

There are always fissures in the parties that appear and reappear during the course of a legislative session. Those differences are more acute in the wake of a tough election. If the opposing party can exploit the fissures early, they can drive a wedge into their opponents’ caucus and marginalize the influence of leadership. That could have happened to Republicans after Democrats regained power in 2012. It’s now a danger for Democrats, who suffered bruising losses in the Senate and saw the decisive victory for Gov. Paul LePage.

The governor believes he has a mandate. So does the more conservative wing of the Republican party. Democrats are talking about compromise, but they have fierce ideological differences with Republicans on an array of  issues. Democrats control the House, which means the party will have some say in the state’s two-year budget and other matters of significance. But their negotiating power will be diminished if the Democratic caucus is divided.

What is all of this have to do with Hayes and a treasurer position that cynics (realists?) often describe as a patronage post?

One could argue that Hayes’ nomination Tuesday shows that Republicans will attempt to exploit any post-election fissures early. After all, in some ways, Hayes is emblematic of the internal struggle within the Democratic party between the far left and the so-called middle. She unsuccessfully challenged Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves in 2012. After she lost, she publicly complained about the influence of labor unions and other groups steering Democrats’ policy choices.

There are people who agree with her. Some, like Hayes, have become independents (As Hayes worked the hallways of the State House Tuesday, she carried a clipboard affixed with stickers of gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler). Some are still Democrats. And some of those Democrats will be casting votes via secret ballot during Wednesday’s election of constitutional officers during a joint convention of the Legislature.

It’s often been written that Democrats have 93 members in Legislature, exactly half of the joint convention. They’ll need one of the four independent lawmakers to join them to re-elect Douglass, Mills and Dunlap. But that assumes the Democratic caucuses are united.

Republicans have 89 members and need only five Democrats to join them to elect Hayes, Republican SOS candidate Jonathan Courtney or AG nominee William Logan.