Now that both parties have released their initial proposals for the new Maine House (or Senate, at least) districts, and the pandemic-delayed redistricting process is drawing to a close, both parties can turn their attention to the first phase of the 2022 campaign: recruiting candidates.

Normally, this initial phase of the campaign would have begun months ago, but it’s hard to convince potential candidates to run when they don’t know what their district will look like. The recruiting process hasn’t been completely frozen, of course: Both major parties have been able to at least focus on encouraging their incumbents again. That always sets the candidate field for a good portion of the map, although redistricting has the potential to throw two incumbents into the same district, creating a messy situation for all.

Still, even without the chaos and uncertainty that are always caused by redistricting, both major parties face recruiting challenges this year. One is shared by both of them: the increasing political polarization that continues to divide the country and make its way into Maine. This political climate makes it harder for the parties to find good candidates (especially for the state Legislature) for a number of different reasons. For one, as politics have become increasingly contentious, they’ve become increasingly personal as well. Personal attacks have become disturbingly common. Professional politicians may be used to that, but for the first-time candidate who’s never dipped their toe in the waters before, it may be enough to dissuade them from taking the plunge.

The inability of the two parties to work together and actually get much done may also dissuade people from running. When less and less is getting done in Augusta, it can be hard to persuade people to even bother running for the Legislature. It might be easy to presume that this phenomenon will be more discouraging to members of the minority party, but it can also affect potential candidates for the majority as well – especially if they’re not interested in governing on a purely partisan basis. That makes it harder for both parties to find candidates who are interested in actually governing, leaving fewer centrists running and fewer competitive districts.

This is one of the ways in which the growing partisan divide is a self-fulfilling phenomenon that builds upon itself: It establishes an increasingly destructive campaign cycle that is difficult to break. We can all see this pattern every day in the increasing unwillingness of voters to consider not only differing points of view but also even basic facts that contradict their partisan assumptions. It’s one thing to slog through a tough, nasty campaign in order to get things done, but it’s quite another to do it without the prospect of any concrete results afterward.

The two major parties in Maine are fighting not just with each other these days, but among themselves as well. Humorist Will Rogers may have once quipped, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat,” but in Maine, Democrats have been the more organized of the major parties lately.

Maine Democrats haven’t seen a major upset in a primary in recent years; in fact, most of their recent candidates for high office have been unopposed in primaries or have won them easily. Democrats have been unified and disciplined, doing a much better job at avoiding intraparty squabbles than Maine Republicans. That’s broken down slightly of late: Gov. Mills has vetoed bills supported by members of legislative leadership, and there’s been a brewing battle between the progressive and moderate wings of the party. In the past, Democrats have been better at resolving these disputes behind closed doors; now they’re out in the open. That can be confusing and disconcerting to first-time candidates.

Maine Republicans are having even more public, forceful fights at the moment. Right now, many conservative activists seem more interested in rehashing the last election than in preparing for the next one, and that will certainly have a negative impact on recruiting if it continues. If Republicans continue to be more focused on testing everyone’s loyalty to Donald Trump than on winning elections, that bodes poorly for them. That’s not a good position to be in when recruiting candidates, as leaders can’t guarantee that candidates won’t be stymied by their own party. In the end, whichever party can overcome these challenges and hit the ground running with the most candidates will begin with an enormous advantage in the battle for control of the Legislature.

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

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