© 2021 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Why Maine Democrats are confronting a brutal electoral landscape

Janet Mills
Elise Amendola
Maine gubernatorial candidate, Democrat Janet Mills celebrates her victory at her election night party, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Portland, Maine.

In this week’s Pulse: Maine Democrats confront a brutal electoral landscape; holiday reading and listening recommendations; thank you.

Democrats are in deep trouble.

If you’ve read anything about politics this month, that’s the prevailing narrative as pundits and pollsters attempt to map out the electoral landscape for the 2022 midterms.

They’ve accumulated significant evidence to support their theory.

A poll commissioned by ABC News found that 51% of registered voters say they’d support the Republican candidate in their congressional district, compared with 41% for the Democrat. It’s the largest generic ballot gap in the 110 polls commissioned by ABC and the Washington Post since 1981.

Rebecca Conley

New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall outlined the contributing factors: The continuation of the pandemic, supply chain shortages and the corresponding upward pressure on inflation, illegal border crossings and the GOP’s culture war success in making the graduate-school-taught “critical race theory” into a catchall for the white parents of school kids who fret over classroom instruction of racial issues.

It doesn’t seem to matter that the economy has been a boon to workers seeking different opportunities or pay increases. Or that the national unemployment rate is 4.6% and expected to continue falling. Or that Americans have amassed $2.3 trillion in savings that was not projected before the pandemic, according to the NYT’s The Upshot.

Brighter forecasts for GDP growth and a gradual easing of supply chain constraints -- and potentially the corresponding pressure on inflation -- are also not resonating.

In other words, there are two stories to tell about the economy and the gloomy one is capturing the current, grumpy mood of the American public. According to an Gallup poll taken in October, 68% of Americans say the economy is getting worse.

How Democrats address this sentiment may determine their electoral fortunes next year. It’s not just congressional Democrats who need to worry, either — so too must governors and legislators in the party. While they can survive a hostile political climate better than congresspeople, governors and state legislators can also be swept up in a wave election. The 2010 midterm election yielded big gains not only for Republicans in Congress, but they also won big in state legislatures and gubernatorial races, including a trifecta in Maine.

Yet Democrats seem to disagree on what they’re supposed to do. Progressives in Congress argue that leaning further into an aggressive policy agenda is the only way to engage disenchanted base voters and counter the GOP’s current energy. Others are urging a simpler, safer approach and a better message. Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama and someone who has some experience with seemingly hopeless electoral dynamics, thinks Democrats should frame Republicans as cynical opponents to reforms designed to help the very same voters who are angry about the economy.

Nancy Pelosi, Chellie Pingree
Susan Walsh
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, poses during a ceremonial swearing-in with Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, right, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, during the opening session of the 116th Congress.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, for her part, has so far chosen to emphasize how Democratic spending measures, both in Congress and by the Legislature, have benefitted Maine. She joined a roundtable discussion Tuesday on the nationally broadcast program On Point to tout Maine’s share of the bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law last week and she has held numerous events to highlight how she’s spending federal dollars directed to Maine via the American Rescue Plan that Democrats approved earlier this year. Mills has also made sure to highlight the state’s fiscal outlook, which on Tuesday included an anticipated upgrade in the state’s revenue projection by $822 million, a nearly 10% increase over previous projections.

Meanwhile, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has been an outspoken advocate for Biden’s $2 trillion Build Back Better social spending initiative.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden has taken a sharply different approach. Golden, who is expected to face a tough reelection fight next year in a district that voted twice for former President Donald Trump, has repeatedly signaled his objections to provisions in Build Back Better. He has recently zeroed in on the state and local tax, or SALT, deduction that would provide a $275 billion tax cut for people who live in areas of high property taxes and high property values by removing a $10,000 cap enacted in 2017.
Golden’s position has been criticized as an electoral calculation designed to blunt GOP attack ads that will likely resemble a tweet this week by Republican Rep. Jason Smith, who framed the SALT provision as Democrats breaking their promise to make high earners pay their fair share in taxes.

Jared Golden
Joel Page
Democratic Congressional candidate Jared Golden, left, greets supporters as they wait for elections results in the 2nd Congressional District election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Lewiston, Maine.

A recent correction in the Joint Committee on Taxation’s analysis of Build Back Better hasn’t changed Golden’s position. The committee adjusted its original calculation to show that the bill would hit millionaires with a 3.2% tax increase, although still providing a $47 billion tax break this tax year for households earning over $1 million. Golden tweeted that the adjustment still didn’t address his issues with SALT, which he said should not be in the bill.

The divergent tacks taken by Mills, Pingree and Golden arguably reflect the different challenges each faces as they seek reelection next year. Pingree is in a relatively safe district for Democrats. Golden is in a swing district. Mills is running statewide in a contest against former Republican Gov. Paul LePage that will test her centrist governing approach of appealing to Democrats while not alienating business interests — an approach that continues to irk the progressive voters she might need to win a second term.

Tryptophan-proof reading & listening 

Here are some of the longform pieces we’ve read or listened to that will get you through the holiday weekend:

- The Great Organic-Food Fraud, The New Yorker: How a Missouri man exploited vulnerabilities in the organic food certification system. “In a market that often seems to value a certificate of authenticity over authenticity, all he had to do was lie.”

- A Power Struggle Over Cobalt Rattles the Clean Energy Revolution, New York Times: Cobalt is a key component in the electric cars that are poised to replace the U.S. vehicle fleet, but Presidents Obama and Trump were outmaneuvered by China, which now controls 15 of the 19 cobalt-producing mines in Congo, home of two-thirds of the world’s current production. That could leave the U.S. more vulnerable to price shocks and the International Energy Agency expects a cobalt shortage by 2030.

- Aftermath (2020), NPR’s Throughline podcast: Herbert Hoover was dubbed the “Great Humanitarian” for his work during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, but his betrayal of a deal to whitewash abuses in African-American refugee camps initiated their migration from the south to the north and from the Republican to the Democratic party.

- The Trailer: 'We can win in any state,' the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel uses his newsletter to explain the GOP optimism in gubernatorial races after a smashing success in Virginia this month.

Programming note

The Maine Political Pulse podcast will not air this week because of the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s also the reason this newsletter is coming to you two days earlier — and a lot shorter — than usual.

In the spirit of the approaching holiday, we here at the Pulse would like to say “thank you” for reading and listening over the past few years. The first Pulse podcast aired Sept. 14, 2018. The newsletter was launched in Aug. 2020. Both endure because of your interest and support. We are incredibly grateful for both.

Enjoy the holiday, and please, be safe.

Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings.

* This story was updated at 4:06 p.m. to better reflect the adjustments made by the Joint Committee on Taxation's analysis of Build Back Better.