Thanks to Gov. Janet Mills’ convincing victory over Paul LePage and Democrat’s successful defense of their majorities, the next session of the Maine Legislature will look quite a bit like it has for the past four years.

That is, minority Republicans will have no chance to do anything but watch when it comes time to consider the biennial budget proposal; for most other legislation, Democrats will have the votes to simply do whatever they please. There’s one big change from the past four years, though, that may or may not affect what legislation gets passed in Augusta: Mills won’t have to run for re-election as governor.

In the past, progressive Democrats in the State House have been somewhat restrained by Mills’ desire to at least appear to be a centrist. It would have been nice if Maine voters had recognized the precariousness of that balancing act and given Maine Republicans at least a slim majority in either the House or Senate, but that didn’t happen. That means that now we’ll get the chance to see whether Mills’ centrism is real and principled or simply a matter of political convenience.

She may have good reason to continue her political balancing act even if she doesn’t really wholeheartedly believe in it; Mills may yet have a political future beyond her second term as governor. Angus King is up for reelection in two years, and Susan Collins in four. It’s easy to see either of them deciding to forgo another term in office. If they did, and should she wish to run, Mills would have to be the early favorite in any open Senate race. If she does in fact wish to run, she’ll want to continue building up a centrist profile. If not, though, she might be willing to move to the left in some areas.

So, after four years of frustration, will progressive Democrats finally have the momentum to move farther with some of their priorities? That will be the narrative of this legislative session. The potential political ambitions of Gov. Mills won’t be their only hurdle. Even though legislative leadership seems to largely be in their camp, they have other political factors to consider – at least if they want to keep the majority in 2024. Moderate Democrats may not be as vocal as liberals, but ensuring their reelection will be key to ensuring the survival of their majority in the years to come.

In years past they’ve managed this by, for the most part, avoiding open warfare between the centrist and progressive factions of the party. While progressives and centrists may have disagreed from time to time on particular issues, there weren’t many competitive legislative primaries, and we haven’t seen a younger, liberal faction publicly questioning party leadership as we have in Washington. Instead, Maine Democrats have managed to remain an effective team – part of the reason they were able to add to their numbers this year.

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There are a number of key issues where this division is most readily apparent. Some of them are unique to Maine, while others are mirror images of debates playing out nationally and in other states. One of the former is tribal sovereignty, where Mills has taken a position even to the right of fellow moderate Democrat Jared Golden. She’s largely opposed to efforts to expand tribal sovereignty, even as Democratic leaders in the Legislature sponsored a bill to do exactly that. It’s understandable that Maine tribes want to see their rights expanded, but Mills is taking the correct position here by resisting this.

Another area where Democrats were more restrained than they might have been during Mills’ first term was taxation. Legislative Democrats floated a number of frivolous and unnecessary proposals for tax hikes over the past four years, and they mostly went nowhere. These proposals were unnecessary because there wasn’t a budget deficit, so additional revenue was never needed to balance it. Instead, Democrats proposed tax increases to try and change people’s behaviors, rather than as part of sound fiscal policy. Mills wisely resisted these efforts, allowing her to claim that she never raised taxes – a key point in her reelection campaign.

These are just two examples of issues where Mills disagreed with fellow Democrats in the past and might see more common ground now that she’s received a second mandate. If that becomes a recurring theme in the next session, that will give us a hint to not only Mills’ own political ambitions, but to the future direction of the Maine Democratic Party as a whole.

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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