In Maine at least, the Nov. 3 election can be succinctly summed up with one (Latin) word: “Dirigo,” the official state motto, which translates to “I lead.”

As most of the rest of the country was becoming more partisan, polarized and radicalized, Maine not only continued to reward centrism, but also continued to (in the words of a wise friend) split its ballots like fine, seasoned cordwood. There were signs of this before the election: In my area there were not only houses that had Joe Biden and Susan Collins signs in their yards, but even more houses that had signs for all the Democratic candidates except Sara Gideon. While it’s foolish to predict electoral outcomes based on lawn signs, it’s not an entirely meaningless metric. In this particular case, those households represented a demographic that was the linchpin to Collins’ re-election victory. They also show that a number of traditional assumptions about Maine politics do still hold true.

The first, and possibly most important, one of these is that liberal southern Maine Democrats aren’t suitable candidates for statewide office. There have only been a few exceptions to that rule over the past 50 years, and they had much stronger ties to the state than Gideon, a fairly recent transplant. Maine is still a swing state, and moderates with ties to the 2nd Congressional District – like Gov. Janet Mills – do far better statewide. This will likely next be relevant in 2024, when the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Angus King is up for another election. If he opts to retire at the age of 80, there will be a wide-open battle for the seat in both parties. Had Gideon won, it would have provided a roadmap for an ambitious liberal (like 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree) to snag the other seat as well. Now, if national Democrats don’t simply anoint a candidate in the primary like they did this year, we may see a battle royal between the liberal and moderate wings of the Maine Democratic Party.

Another is that raising the most money does not only not guarantee a win in Maine, but also is just as likely to hurt a candidate as help them. This was blatantly obvious during the 2010 gubernatorial primary, when Paul LePage cruised to a victory over several better-funded opponents. That year, it was also true for down-ticket candidates as well: Republicans were vastly outspent by Democrats in State House races – as they are almost every cycle in this state – yet managed to capture a majority anyway. This year, Gideon’s campaign outraised and outspent Collins by more than 2 to 1, yet still came up short in the end. That doesn’t mean that Gideon’s spending had no impact – instead, it means that it was only enough to make the candidate plausible, rather than being enough to get her elected. If Collins hadn’t been so outspent, it’s likely that this race never would have been truly competitive in the first place. Fortunately, as is so often the case with referenda, just because Maine is a cheap date in politics doesn’t mean we’re a good blind date.

This election also showed yet again that the individual candidates matter more in Maine than partisan alignment, the national environment, or spending. Statewide, it appears likely not only that Collins got more votes than Donald Trump, but also that Gideon got fewer votes than he did. In Gardiner, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden (who was seeking re-election in the 2nd District), Biden and Collins all carried the day, and that didn’t just happen here: It was repeated in larger cities like Lewiston, Bangor and Presque Isle. A similar pattern was repeated all over the 1st District: In Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, Biden, Collins and Pingree all won.

With Gideon, Democrats essentially ran a candidate who was more identified with her party than anything else. Collins’ victory shows that’s still not easy to do in Maine, and it’s one that both parties should keep in mind in the future. The best candidates in Maine, both statewide and at the local level in most places, are people who have an established identity outside of their partisan alignment.

Politics may be frequently turbulent in a swing state like Maine, but that’s to be expected. What’s clear since Tuesday is that, even though the state may be bitterly divided over Trump, we still expect our legislators to be independent-minded, pragmatic and hard-working. In Maine, at least, all politics is, indeed, still local.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at: [email protected]
Twitter: jimfossel

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