The religious right has been declining in influence in Maine as of late, relegated to being a dominant player in the Maine Republican Party while having little influence on the state as a whole. This might seem like the natural state of affairs in a Democratic-leaning competitive state, but it wasn’t always the case.

Up until about 15 years ago, the religious right wielded significant influence in both political parties. In order to be elected as a Republican to major political office in Maine, one had to be socially moderate. For instance, it was Republican Gov. John McKernan who signed the last law expanding abortion access in Maine.

It wasn’t that social issues were less polarizing back then, just that they were less partisan. Pro-abortion rights groups were willing to work with, and even politically support, pro-choice Republicans. Meanwhile, social conservatives still had a solid presence among Maine Democrats, thanks largely to the influence of Catholic Democrats; the lines on the issues were sharp, then as now, but they were quite a bit blurrier between the parties.

All of that began to change in 2009, when Democratic Gov. John Baldacci signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, despite pressure from social conservatives opposing it. They went on to launch a people’s veto campaign, overturned it and a year later, they saw an ally of theirs, Republican Paul LePage, elected to the Blaine House. Suddenly, being socially conservative was no longer an impediment to electoral success. The two parties began to diverge ever more sharply on these issues, to the point where we are today, where any discussion about abortion instantly becomes a party-line debate. There’s not much room for nuance anymore.

This helps explain why the religious right, as well as Maine Republicans, have both suffered a string of electoral and political losses lately. Social conservatives haven’t been able to notch a win at the ballot box since their initial victory in the 2009 marriage referendum, while Republicans haven’t done much better since LePage’s 2014 reelection. In years past, a narrow vote on such a controversial issue would have meant a sure-fire referendum, but now, that might not necessarily be the case – and there are a few very good reasons for that.

One of those is that liberal, progressive groups have upped their game when it comes to citizen initiatives in Maine.


Recently, they’ve been on a virtually unstoppable winning streak statewide: They’ve passed marriage equality, expanded Medicaid and instituted ranked-choice voting. In Portland, they’ve been similarly successful, easily passing their initiatives almost every time they come up for a vote and readily knocking back attempts to thwart them.

Conservatives, meanwhile, not only have seen their referendums fail at the ballot box, but have also often been unable to even get them on the ballot in the first place. When conservatives have been successful with referendums in the past, they’ve garnered bipartisan support for their efforts – like with the people’s veto of Baldacci’s tax plan, or the right to food amendment. Lately, though, these referendums have become more partisan, allowing the institutional left to flex its organizing prowess.

If social conservatives want to find success at the ballot box with their issues, they need to divide the opposition, getting some support from Democratic voters, if not politicians. That’s simply not going to happen with any citizen initiative relating to such a hot-button issue as abortion, but it might be possible with a few other issues that are on voters’ radar lately. Moreover, as a whole, social conservatives ought to try to make more inroads with the Democratic Party to get things done: The close House vote on the abortion bill shows that’s a possibility for them.

Republicans, too, need to be able to appeal to voters of various ideological stripes; they need candidates who are right for every individual district. That might mean a more socially moderate candidate in a certain area, or it just might mean a candidate who chooses to emphasize different issues.

Social conservatism will always play a major part in the Republican Party in Maine and nationally, but neither the party nor the movement can hold each other hostage. If they do that, it ends up being a marriage of convenience – convenient for their opponents, not for them, relegating them to permanent minority status.

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

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