If there are two Maines, there are two Maine Democratic Parties, although they aren’t necessarily divided by geography.

There are progressives who push for big structural changes on issues such as health care and the environment, and moderates who say they share the same goals but favor an incremental approach to achieving them.

Both groups had some success in Tuesday’s election, but neither walked away completely happy, promising some interesting intra-party conflict as Maine confronts a pandemic and recession.

In Portland, voters backed four out of five referendum questions put forward by a coalition of groups led by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that often allies with Democrats in elections.

The new ordinances include a 50 percent increase in the local minimum wage during states of emergency, the implementation of rent control and a major rewrite of zoning, labor and building codes packaged as a local “Green New Deal.” The activists who wrote the questions said the approach was necessary because the City Council moves too slowly and listens more to business groups than to residents.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and seven out of eight members of the City Council advised “no” votes on the referenda. So did the Chamber of Commerce, and so did this newspaper’s Editorial Board.


But they passed easily. “I hope the people in (City Hall) heard that message and moving forward, they engage with the people they represent in a meaningful way,” said Jason Shedlock, a labor organizer involved in the effort.

Meanwhile, in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, another kind of Democrat, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, was sent back to Washington, where he will be one of the few members of Congress from a district that was not carried by his party’s presidential candidate.

Golden is progressive on some issues, like trade and campaign finance reform, but he has staked out his independence from other Democrats in ways that would not play well in a place like Portland. He has voted against gun regulations, for instance, and spoke out against COVID relief bills that he considered overly partisan.

But he makes some of the same points the city activists made about who is included in the typical political debate.

In an interview with the Editorial Board last month, Golden dismissed the idea that his district is conservative or Republican just because it went for Donald Trump.

Instead, he said he represents people who are “deeply skeptical that government and politics is paying attention to them, and they are used to it underdelivering. They feel like they are unlikely to get help from it and therefore they are not looking for it, and I think that’s unfortunate. People ask me why I’m a Democrat, and for starters it’s because I know that government can be a positive force for good in our communities and people’s daily lives.”


Whether Democrats should be more like the Portland activists if they want to win elections and enact policies or more like Golden will be the subject of many arguments over the next few months. The case study will be state House Speaker Sara Gideon’s failure to defeat incumbent Sen. Susan Collins, who appeared to be vulnerable for the first time in her career.

Gideon ran as a moderate, and she proposed a modest reform agenda that could not be attacked as radical or extreme.

She easily defeated two progressive challengers, Betsy Sweet and Bre Kidman, in the July primary, winning the votes of people who thought Gideon would be the most electable in November.

But despite raising more than $70 million and showing promising support in polling, Gideon lost on Tuesday, and it wasn’t even close.

The most bitter pill may have been that despite the presence in the race of a more progressive independent, former Green Independent Lisa Savage, there is no sign that Gideon was abandoned by the left. Instead, she was not able to hold the moderate swing voters her campaign was designed to capture, losing to Collins in places like York County, where Biden won easily.

Would a candidate with a more progressive agenda have been able to take advantage of Collins’ perceived weakness by giving people something to vote for instead of something to vote against?

Would a more conservative candidate who was not as tied to Democratic Party orthodoxy have had more appeal to Maine’s less ideological rural voters?

Both questions are impossible to answer, but don’t expect Democrats to stop asking them in the months ahead.

The election might be over, but if you were looking for clarity, you’re going to need to wait.

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