Remember back when Bernie Sanders was too liberal?

It was just last year, when the presidential campaigns rolled into Maine for the quadrennial caucuses. Some smart people warned that even though they agreed with Sanders on substance, he was a risky choice because he would not be able to appeal to moderates in a November match-up against a Republican. So Maine Democrats were advised to help nominate Hillary Clinton, who would be liberal enough.

We know how that worked out. People waited in line for hours in the freezing cold at the Democratic Caucus just to get a chance to vote for Sanders, and he won the state easily. After Clinton won the nomination, Sanders gamely endorsed and campaigned for her, but whatever magic he had did not rub off, and most of his supporters either grudgingly backed Clinton or just stayed home. Some voted for a third-party candidate or even Donald Trump – out of disgust for the whole system.

Nursing post-election hangovers, many of the same smart people were heard to mutter, “… shoulda picked Bernie.” OK, maybe we weren’t that smart.

As 2018 Democratic candidates to be Maine’s next governor start to peek out of their holes, the Bernie Sanders phenomenon deserves some attention. Is there enough of an energized base of progressives in Maine ready to undo eight years of Paul LePage’s mean-spirited trickle-down economics? And if so, is there anyone out there who could lead it?

The answer to the first question appears to be “yes.”


Sanders didn’t just win the Maine caucus last March: Seven months before that, he came here and, with very little advance work, packed the Cumberland County Civic Center. Even the 2007 version of Barack Obama stuck with the Expo.

Sanders didn’t compete with charisma. He spoke for 45 minutes, told no jokes, revealed no personal anecdotes, shared no names of suffering people he has met along the campaign trail.

Instead, he laid out the problem he saw – a system that enriches the people at the top while everyone else struggles – and said what he would do about it.

That was universal health care, free college tuition, strong labor unions and expanded Social Security. To blunt the impact of corporate money that would be marshaled against any of those goals, Sanders financed his campaign with microdonations from individuals and called for a constitutional amendment that would ban corporate money from politics.

Could an agenda like that work in a statewide race?

Maine’s last election suggests that it could.


Remember, four out of five referendum questions passed in November. Imagine a Legislature that legalized marijuana, added a surtax on high incomes, increased the minimum wage and instituted ranked-choice voting. Smart people might say that it was out of touch and way more liberal than the people. But now it’s the people who are more liberal than their government.

And take note of the way the presidential race played out here. Yes, it’s true that Donald Trump won the 2nd Congressional District by 9 points, earning him a single electoral vote. But Clinton still won the state, thanks to a more modest 6-point win in southern Maine.

How did she do it? Because a lot more people voted in the reliably liberal 1st District than in the more conservative 2nd. Clinton picked up 30,000 votes more in the district she won than Trump got in the district he won. That shows how someone could win a statewide race by dominating the southern Maine vote even if they got smoked up north.

And the street demonstrations since the Trump inauguration suggest that there is a mobilized force demanding change, much like the tea party wave that carried Gov. LePage to the Republican nomination in 2010. This year’s protests have a lot of overlap with the people who turned out for Sanders and who were disappointed that he was not the nominee.

The harder question is whether there is a Maine Democrat who could take advantage of these trends.

The Bernie voters are notoriously difficult to corral. Sanders was not even a Democrat himself, and many of his supporters don’t consider themselves to be members of a party. They may not turn out for a primary, and they probably won’t get excited about a middle-of-the-road Democrat, no matter who the Republican is.


With the Ghost of Bernie Past hanging over this election, Democrats have a lot to think about. Candidates could find themselves wondering whether they are too liberal for Maine, or whether they are liberal enough.

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Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: @gregkesich

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