When it comes to politics, there really are two Maines. But they’re not the ones you usually hear about.

It’s not just northern vs. southern, inland vs. coastal or rural vs. urban.

The great divide in Maine politics these days is between the way people vote when they are electing a candidate and the way they vote when they are answering a ballot question.

In the past few elections, Maine voters have recognized same-sex marriages, legalized marijuana, raised taxes on the rich to pay for public schools, hiked the minimum wage and instituted a ground-breaking electoral reform that will let Maine voters rank their choices in races that have three or more candidates. Last week, they made Maine the first state to expand Medicaid eligibility by referendum, cementing our reputation as one of the bluest of the blue states.

But the same Maine voters also have elected and re-elected a tea-party governor in Paul LePage who has done everything in his power to thwart all of the above-mentioned policy changes, and thanks to the voters, he has enough support in the Legislature to make his opposition stick.

When you add a surprise victory last year for Donald Trump in Maine’s 2nd District, which has twice elected Bruce Poliquin, and the state starts looking kind of red.


What we are seeing can’t be explained by presidential cycles, outside money or three-way math, although they all have a role.

It’s more about the fundamentally different way that Republicans and Democrats understand politics and government. It’s why Republicans keep winning elections even though Republican policy ideas are unpopular. It’s also why there isn’t a progressive tea party, or a Democratic version of LePage. And it’s why the partisans don’t know how to work together after the election when they get to Augusta or Washington.

The divide is explained in the 2016 book “Asymmetric Politics” by Matthew Grossman and David A. Hopkins. They argue that the two parties that dominate the political debate are not just ideological rivals, they’re completely different kinds of organizations, interested in different things and operating under different rules.

The Democratic Party, as it was assembled by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, is a coalition of groups, like organized labor, farmers and social progressives, working in common cause despite some conflicts.

Since 1964, the Republican Party has been an organ of the conservative movement, and there are few Republicans who manage to stay around if they have unorthodox views on taxes and small government.

According to the authors, this makes Democrats sound like they are reading off a checklist when they campaign, because that’s what their constituent groups demand in exchange for their support.


And that’s why Republican campaigns stick to broad themes such as self-reliance, individual liberty and patriotism, because that’s what the conservative movement requires.

That’s the theory, anyway, and it seems to play out in Maine.

The lack of ideological unity in the Democratic Party shows itself by the number of independent candidates running in so many of our elections. There are a lot of unenrolled voters in Maine, but there is no “independent” or “moderate” ideology. Most independent candidates are former Democrats who offer the Democratic agenda minus some of the coalition’s clunkier elements.

You could see Eliot Cutler as a Democrat who was not trying to win any friends in the labor unions, or a Green Party candidate as a Democrat who doesn’t expect much love from the Manufacturers Association.

Paul LePage was able to take advantage of the disunity, offering himself as the perfect Republican candidate.

His conservative ideology is pure. His values are rock-solid. And his biography is the kind of thing you would read about in, well, a biography.


Whether you liked him or not, he was the candidate for smaller government and less taxation. The people who shared those values proved to be willing to overlook some faults, like LePage’s short fuse and refusal to compromise.

Which brings us to the next election, and the question of which Maine will elect LePage’s successor and the next Legislature? Will it be the Maine that expanded Medicaid or the one that voted for LePage, Poliquin and Trump?

Recent history would suggest that the Republicans have the upper hand, assuming that they can keep the debate on broad themes and away from the specifics of their less popular ideas.

But after being out of power for a while, Democrats should be encouraged by the results of the referendums.

The voting public does not appear to be scared off by big transformative policy ideas, and a candidate who can talk about them convincingly has a chance of reaching both Maines at the same time.

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


Twitter: gregkesich

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