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Pulse Newsletter: What 2021 Might Have In Store For Maine (For Hints, Look Back To 2020)


The turn of the calendar year comes with an instinct to reset.

It’s a transition often made easier by the realignment of our government and institutions.

A realignment will occur in 2021. The U.S. will have a new president and a new Congress. Maine will have a new Legislature and a new slate of 186 state lawmakers will play a leading role in creating a new two-year budget that will determine the size and direction of the state’s bureaucracy.

Other than special elections to fill vacant seats, there are no big candidate contests set for 2021. Nevertheless, the political ambitions for those eyeing 2022 and beyond could emerge.

But resetting will be more difficult in 2021. Last week’s newsletter illustrated how 2020 has been relentlessly and brutally consequential.

Here’s how the new year will be heavily influenced by the old one.

The Virus

Of course.

Just as the novel coronavirus doesn’t recognize divisions of class, race, age or geography, it also doesn’t care about human constructs of time. It was with us in 2020 and it will remain that way for much of 2021.

For that reason, the pandemic, the response to it and its human and economic devastation will remain the predominant undercurrent of Maine and national politics for most, if not all, of the new year.

There’s no predicting how exactly the pandemic will shape Maine politics in 2021, but we already know its impact on 2020. The pandemic arguably helped Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in her bruising reelection contest. Her role drafting a relief program that provides forgivable loans to businesses neatly dovetailed with her campaign’s narrative that she delivers for Maine while also creating a contrast with her leading challenger, former Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon.

The pandemic also elevated the profile of Gov. Janet Mills, who almost unilaterally steered the state’s response and its fallout.

There will be more about Mills in a bit, but like her counterparts in other states, the pandemic response has rekindled cultural and political tensions between individualism and the collective good. Those tensions, inflamed by politicians drafting off anger and fatigue from the pandemic, will be front and center in politics next year.

The same goes for additional attempts to curb the virus, particularly if they’re not fully explained.

Successful mass vaccination against COVID-19 could make the virus less of a political force next year, but that seems many months away. Operation Warp Speed, the federal program that hastened the development of vaccines, has slowed to a crawl at a critical moment. Curtailed vaccine shipments to states and a lack of federal leadership is frustrating governors, health officials and, of course, a public desperate for a merciful end to a dark period of isolation and hardship.

Disenchantment and distrust were hallmarks of 2020 politics. It’s going to take a sea change in the pandemic to lessen those forces in 2021.

The Governor

It’s hard to imagine two more incongruous years than Mills’ first two as governor.

Elected at the tail end of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s tempestuous two terms, Mills’ first year was relatively placid. Republican attempts to frame her as a big-spending liberal largely fell flat in 2019 as Mills kept her pledge not to raise taxes and limited her policy agenda to initiatives that focused on restoring rather than significantly expanding state programs.

Her biggest controversy, if it can be called that, was her support for Central Maine Power’s transmission project, an initiative framed as much by the company’s declining reputation among its customers as its perceived lack of benefit to Maine.

But 2020 was a much different year because of the pandemic and Mills’ management of the state’s response. Like many governors, Mills initially received high marks in public polls for attempting to balance public health and economic activity. However, the pandemic has a way of producing counterintuitive public sentiment; Maine’s successful efforts to curb the virus sometimes fueled questions and resentment that restrictions were even necessary.

That sentiment remains, although it’s a minority view if public polls are to be believed.

Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public
Maine Public
Gov. Janet Mills at a Maine CDC briefing on the coronavirus on March 27, 2020, in Augusta.

Mills now faces a different dilemma in 2021. COVID-19 cases are soaring and the governor’s public health team has already warned that the trend could continue into the new year. Mills has expressed reluctance to return to the restrictions imposed last spring, citing the economic and human suffering that come with them.

Meanwhile, LePage, who began talking about challenging Mills before he even left office, continues to benefit from media intrigue about his future political plans. The Republican, age 72, remains popular in the Maine GOP. He could make an official announcement as soon as this year, if he actually decides to run.

If he doesn’t, other potential gubernatorial candidates may come from the Legislature. Rick Bennett, the former Senate president and chairman of the Maine GOP, has returned to the Maine Senate after making his opposition to the CMP transmission project a leading cause in his election campaign.

Bennett has made no public statements about his future ambitions, yet his shrewd political acumen and pragmatic political style have brought intrigue to the prospect of his candidacy.

Mills, who turned 73 on Wednesday, has indicated that she’ll likely seek reelection in 2022.

An official announcement could come this year, but if she runs again, the governor’s pandemic response and her efforts to hasten an economic recovery will factor heavily in her bid for a second term.

The Senator

It was a bad year for political predictions.

That was certainly true in the presidential race, but it was also true when some national political observers declared Collins “toast.”

There have since been considerable attempts to retcon the story of Collins’ reelection. Some begin with a premise as fantastical as the premature political obituaries written at her expense: She was never really in trouble.

Not only are those claims belied by the fierce and expensive campaigns run by Collins and aligned Republican groups, but they also undercut just how effective Collins was in steering the race away from a national referendum on her and President Donald Trump.

The links to Trump were potentially the most perilous for Collins, specifically votes she took that could be framed as in service to him or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell because they eroded the core of her moderate, independent reputation.

Her favorability plunged as a result.

Now that Trump has lost and Joe Biden is president-elect, Collins is perceived by some to be at the apex of her power because she can act as a bridge between the new president and a potentially divided Congress.

Collins’ role in helping negotiate a new COVID relief package signed into law this week has bolstered this view.

There’s no doubt that Collins has a good opportunity to prove the post-election proclamations correct, possibly affording herself a chance to reclaim some of the support she lost during the Trump presidency. But her efforts could also hinge on a willingness to meaningfully defy McConnell, as she did in 2017 when voting against a Republican repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

The Legislature

The 130th Maine Legislature is just a few weeks old and already it’s a legislature of firsts.

The Democratic-controlled House elected the state’s first openly gay House speaker in Biddeford Rep. Ryan Fecteau, the first Black woman in a party leadership position in Portland Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross and the first woman secretary of state in Shenna Bellows.

However, these milestones will soon be overshadowed by the challenge ahead.

Lawmakers have submitted roughly 2,000 bills this year, but no legislation will get more attention than those addressing the state’s budget.

Maine residents can expect to hear about two spending bills this year. The first is a spending plan to supplement the current two-year budget that ends June 30. The second is the state’s next two-year budget, which must be ratified by the end of the fiscal year to avoid a shutdown of state government.

Gov. Mills will propose both budget bills, but it will ultimately be up to the legislature to ratify them.

It won’t be easy.

The state’s economy has been hobbled by the pandemic and restrictions designed to limit spread of the virus. Revenue projections are better than originally anticipated, but the state is still confronting massive gaps for the current budget year ending June 30 and the next biennial budget that will get the state through June 2023.

Reaching agreements on those budget bills won’t be easy.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press
Associated Press
Members of the Maine House take the oath of office at the Augusta Civic Center, Wednesday, Dec 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

Democrats have majorities in the Maine House of Representatives and Senate, but they’ll need Republican support if they want to pass a bipartisan budget. If Democrats opt to use their majorities to pass a two-year budget — a dicey move politically — they’ll have to do so 90 days before they adjourn in June because only legislation that garners two-thirds support becomes effective immediately.

The Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee is officially tasked with negotiating budget bills, but caucus leaders play a significant, if not entirely seen, role. Not only do they bargain with one another, they also have to persuade rank-and-file members.

That’s a tall task for an experienced leadership team that’s united in purpose and impossible when it’s not.

It’s too early to evaluate the cohesiveness of the Republican and Democratic leadership teams, but it’s no secret that there are differences in ideology among Democrats and Republicans; some Democrats represent the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, others don’t; some Republicans are Trump Republicans, others follow the party’s more traditional orthodoxy.

That means passing legislation — and the budget — will require reconciling differences not just between the two major political parties, but also within them.

The Delegation

Collins gobbled up the majority of the media coverage in 2020 and she’s poised to do so again in 2021.

But what’s next for everyone else in Maine’s congressional delegation?

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King has been an outspoken critic of Trump over the past four years and his position on the Senate Intelligence Committee further elevated his profile as he drew frequent television hits and attention in the national press.

King, 76, will complete his second term in 2024, and it’s not yet clear whether he intends to seek a third. If he doesn’t, he could finish his congressional career at the conclusion of Biden’s first term.

Biden’s election and the national resurgence this year of split-ticket voters has spurred talk of a bipartisan mandate. While some regard such analysis as fanciful, Biden has also vowed to work with Republicans. That’s why there’s been so much discussion about Collins as a potential collaborator.

King caucuses with Democrats but he endorsed Collins in 2014. King stayed out of her race this year (his wife, Mary Herman, did not and endorsed Gideon), but he may find himself working more closely with her if Biden’s bipartisanship promises actually materialize.

Meanwhile, Maine’s two Democratic members in the U.S. House of Representatives will likely remain a contrast in style and ambition.

During the Trump presidency, 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree brandished her bonafides as a liberal stalwart and climbed in seniority within the Democratic House conference. Pingree is only 65 and a formidable politician, but she has passed on other opportunities, including a gubernatorial run in 2018 and a bid for the U.S. Senate seat that King won in 2012. It’s unclear what she wants to do next, but with Democrats holding a razor-thin majority in the U.S. House, 2021 might not be the year for any big decisions.

The same is true of 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, although the 38-year-old former Marine appears to be facing a different slate of choices. He convincingly won his reelection this year, earning more votes than Trump, who has now carried the 2nd District twice.

Golden’s performance has fueled speculation that he could win a statewide contest — possibly a U.S. Senate seat should King retire when his term ends in 2024.

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