When it comes to elections in Maine, it’s hard to determine who’s doing well in some of the most important – and all too often overlooked – races in the state: state legislative races. Maine races are infrequently and poorly polled. That goes even for the top-tier races, gubernatorial, U.S. Senate, and U.S. House. For an example of this, we need only look back at the U.S. Senate race between Sara Gideon and Susan Collins. While there was a ton of public polling, almost all of it from July onward showed Gideon ahead, yet she ended up losing handily.

With state legislative races, there are often no public polls at all, even in the highly competitive districts where both parties are spending a ton of money. Often, if there is a publicly released poll of a legislative race, it’s paid for by an advocacy group and so should be regarded with skepticism, if not completely ignored. The two parties often do their own internal polling, but they rarely leak those polls, and there’s no reason to believe they’re particularly accurate – they’ve often been spectacularly wrong in the past.

The other public, statistical metric that we might use to evaluate the state of play is fundraising, but that’s an often-faulty number as well. At the moment, Democrats are out-raising Republicans when it comes to legislative races, but it’s worth noting that they did the same in 2010, when the GOP took control of the Legislature, so that might not be a determining factor. Moreover, with the down-ballot races, many big donors and larger, national groups will wait until later in the year to give or spend their money, meaning the current fundraising picture is hardly complete. They tend to wait for a number of reasons, not least because it obscures the public campaign finance report and makes it harder for their opponents to see what they’re doing. Now, that’s not to give Republican leadership a free pass on their lackluster fundraising efforts. They certainly ought to be doing better; it’s an issue that they must immediately begin to address.

Republicans are behind in another key area, though, and it’s a vitally important one that’s entirely of their own making: ideas. When the GOP retook the majority in 2010, one of the things they did early on was make it clear exactly what they would do if they took control – and they subsequently acted on those priorities. Maine Republicans need to do that this year, too. In fact, it will be a vital part of their effort to retake their majority. They can’t simply recruit strong candidates and hope that the national political environment carries them across the finish line.

Partly that’s because many of the biggest issues facing the country at the moment – like immigration and inflation – are best addressed at the federal, rather than the state, level. It’s also partly because Paul LePage has made it very clear that he opposes one of their key priorities from last session: the $850 stimulus checks eventually embraced by the Mills administration. Really, though, it’s because Maine voters deserve to know exactly what Republicans would do in Augusta if they retake the majority. It’s hard to judge what a party will do in power if it sticks to vague talking points rather than laying out a specific plan for what it wants to accomplish.

If House and Senate Republicans aren’t going to lay out a whole agenda, we need to make sure that individual candidates are willing to be specific. Some candidates, especially those who have legislative experience, are better at this than others, but anyone running ought to be able to do it. After all, if they can’t do it as candidates, how can we trust them to govern responsibly?

It’s not just that candidates owe it to voters to be direct about what they intend to do once in office – it’s also a wise political strategy. While political consultants often get paid big bucks to advise candidates to do the opposite (to be as vague as possible) that’s not really good advice. If you don’t define your agenda, it opens up the possibility for your opponents to do it for you, which would be particularly perilous for Maine Republicans falling behind in fundraising. While it’s smart for candidates to avoid unnecessary controversies, that doesn’t mean they can simply ignore controversial issues. Should they, voters will rightfully ignore them.


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

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