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Maine poll foreshadows nationalized governors race, hinging on independents

Newly inaugurated Maine Govs. Paul LePage (left) and Janet Mills, deliver remarks after being sworn in on Jan. 5, 2011, and Jan. 2, 2019, respectively.
Pat Wellenbach, Robert F. Bukaty
Composite of AP file photos
Newly inaugurated Maine Govs. Paul LePage (left) and Janet Mills, deliver remarks after being sworn in on Jan. 5, 2011, and Jan. 2, 2019, respectively.

A recent poll shows that inflation and the cost of living are dominant concerns for Maine voters, but it also hints that Republicans haven’t convinced a plurality of respondents that the Democrats who control state government should take the fall for those problems this November — at least not yet.

The same survey commissioned by Portland-based Pan Atlantic Research also shows that persuadable independent voters and their feelings about the economy and other hot-button issues will likely determine the fate of high-profile races for governor and the 2nd Congressional District. The findings may also provide valuable context for campaign strategies as the races intensify before Election Day, including attempts by Republicans to nationalize contests for the state house.

The gubernatorial race is the marquee of the State House contests. According to the poll of 824 likely voters, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills leads former Republican Gov. Paul LePage by 4%, barely outside the survey’s 3.4% margin of error. The survey aligns with previous polls showing Mills and LePage in a statistical dead heat.

Perhaps more interesting than the horse race result are respondents’ answers to whether Maine is on the right track, and a separate query about the top issue facing the state. Not surprisingly, cost of living and inflation overwhelmingly led the responses. But despite those worries, a plurality of voters — 46.5% to 38.6% — said the state is on the right track (15% were undecided).

At a glance, the “right track” results might seem at odds with the responses to the “most important issues” question, especially if one is inclined to believe that the party in power will be punished for the high prices of gas, electricity and groceries. Republicans certainly hope so, which is why the Maine GOP is trying to frame Democrats as exacerbating inflation, citing obscure bills, including one that originally increased product fees on pet food manufacturers (Democrats amended the original version even though the costs passed on to consumers likely would have been in the pennies, probably less), and tax increases that either never gained traction in the Legislature, or weren’t even proposed.

There are a range of possible explanations for the dichotomy of those survey results; some respondents might not associate the “right direction” question with who controls state government; some might not even know who controls state government; some might know who controls it, but realize state leaders can do little to alleviate high gas prices and inflation. There’s also a possible explanation that Democrats hope holds true through November: Even though inflation is a top concern, a plurality of Maine voters do not blame the party in power in Augusta.

That doesn’t appear to be the case for President Joe Biden, whose favorability is underwater in the Pan Atlantic poll by 8%, roughly the same margin he won the state by in 2020. The president is also getting walloped in national polls.

Conversely, the Pan Atlantic polls shows Mills’ favorability is above water by 8%, buoyed in part by the independent voters she’ll likely need to defeat LePage in November. However, Mills’ hold on independent voters might be tenuous.

“It seems like that right direction, wrong track question is picking up partisan affiliation and partisan sentiment as much as anything else,” said Pan Atlantic analyst Jason Edes, adding that 72% of Democratic, 46% of independent and 27% of Republican respondents said they felt the state was on the right track.

He said that most Democrats and Republicans have already made up their minds about the gubernatorial race.

“It’s hard to imagine the events of the next six months or so actually changing how they intend to vote,” he said.

That’s not true of independents, who Edes says, tend to be undecided until late in a race. That’s why the Maine GOP has plenty of time to link Mills to Biden, an effort already underway on social media and the deployment of trolling lawn signs at last week’s Democratic convention in Bangor.

“So I think that that push to activate national sentiment and tie Janet Mills to the national party is really going to be a driving strategy for Republicans here and probably a pretty effective one,” Edes said.

The survey didn’t attempt to measure LePage’s favorability.

Golden strong with independents

The poll showed U.S. Rep. Jared Golden leading prospective Republican challenger Bruce Poliquin, by nearly 9% (The survey did not measure Liz Caruso’s support, although she’s challenging Poliquin next month for the right to take on Golden). Golden’s favorability is also a net positive of 19.5%, thanks in large part to his support among independents.

Golden’s strength in the poll, and particularly among independents, suggests that Republicans have so far had difficulty tying Golden to Democrats’ national brand or leadership.

Meanwhile, the poll shows Democratic 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree with a 51%-31% lead over GOP challenger Ed Thelander.

Edes noted that the survey didn’t pick up respondent reaction to the leak of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that could overturn a landmark ruling that has long barred state from banning abortion. However, he said there is evidence of a pre-leak enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democratic voters when questioners tried to gauge likely voters for the survey.

He said “this is one of the first polls that we've run, where more Republicans than Democrats said that they were certain or very likely to come out and vote. That's not really happened in the past.”

That could change. Some recent national surveys suggest Democratic voters are becoming more interested in the midterm elections.

Edes said he’ll be watching to see if Pan Atlantic’s fall tracking survey picks up increased enthusiasm among Democrats when it’s released in October. But he says it’s independents that may hold the key to the election.

“They're still 10% to 20% of respondents who haven't made up their minds, or who are looking at other candidates, or who aren't really paying attention yet,” Edes said. “That's actually a little bit lower than it has been in the past, suggesting that people are paying somewhat more attention than they used to. But that still means there's a lot of room for those people to break. Those people are also disproportionately independents, and so keeping an eye on how the different campaigns are trying to appeal to independents, and their success in doing so, is going to be really predictive of the results going forward.”

'Radical lessons'

Republicans have been working hard for months now to connect the dots for voters between Mills, inflation and soaring gas prices.

It was curious, therefore, that the Maine Republican Party’s first anti-Mills television ad of the season wasn’t focused on these bread-and-butter, pocketbook issues . . . but on LGBTQ+ issues.

The 60-second ad, which began airing this week, accuses Mills of spending nearly $2.8 million “to create radical school lessons.” The GOP zeroed in on one online “educational module,” offered online through the state Department of Education’s Maine Online Opportunities for Sustained Education or MOOSE program.

In it, a kindergarten teacher talks about the meaning of the acronym LGBT+ and defines transgender as “someone who the doctors made a mistake about when they were born.”

“When a baby is born, the doctors will tell the parents what gender they think that baby is,” the teacher states. “They’ll say, ‘We think your child is a female or we think your child is a male.’ But some people when they get a little bit older realize that what the doctor said was not right.”

The Republican ad highlights those clips.

“Is this really what our kids should be learning in kindergarten, instead of math, science and reading?” says the ad’s narrator. “Janet Mills’ radical agenda is wrong for our kids and for Maine.”

The video first caught national attention a few weeks ago via a tweet from LibsofTikTok, an incendiary pusher of often anti-LGBTQ+ content. LibsofTikTok has more than a million followers but, more crucially, itspostings are often cited by conservative pundits, talk show hosts and politicians with national influence.

The Maine Department of Educationapparently took down the video just before the anti-Mills ad began airing after receiving complaints from the public and questions from reporters. But the incident has forced Mills and the department to respond.

“The governor was not aware of the lesson in MOOSE, but she understands the concerns expressed about the age appropriateness, and agrees with the Department of Education’s decision to remove the lesson,” Mills spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said in a statement. “MOOSE provides optional content, and, ultimately, decisions about what is taught in a classroom are made by – and always will be made by – parents, community members, teachers, and local elected school boards, consistent with Maine’s long-standing tradition of local control.”

The MOOSE program was launched in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic as a way for Maine teachers to find materials they could incorporate into their virtual lessons. The now-controversial lesson on LGBTQ+ history and rights is among more than 400 learning “modules” on science, math, history, reading, etc. And that $2.8 million was spent on the entire MOOSE program, not just the lesson in question here.

“The module was developed during the first year of the pandemic by a kindergarten teacher in partnership with a group of other kindergarten teachers and should have received further review by a DOE specialist overseeing the kindergarten team,” department spokesman Marcus Mrowka said in a statement.

The Maine Republican Party’s ad is an example of how the national “culture wars” between Republicans and Democrats will play out in Maine this election season. After all, both state parties are heavily funded by their national counterparts whose campaign arms plan to spend big on Maine’s 2022 gubernatorial race.

On the other side, Maine Democrats have made abortion a top issue, casting LePage and a potential Republican majority in the Legislature as a dire threat to abortion access in Maine if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

The GOP ad is hard-hitting and professionally produced. The question is: how effective will it be?

It will undoubtedly resonate with conservatives convinced liberals are pushing a “radical” agenda. But they were already in LePage’s camp and probably don’t need any more evidence against Mills.

Likewise, most Democrats will likely vote for Mills (if they vote) after the eight years they endured under LePage.

Which leaves that core demographic of still-swayable independents discussed above.

Will culture-war ads against Mills on LGBTQ+ lessons in schools – or against LePage on abortion – resonate with the many fiscal and social moderates who choose not align with either party in Maine? Stay tuned . . .

A bellwether race for November?

Meanwhile, the two parties and their campaign allies have already sunk about six figures combined into a state Senate race that some are viewing as a bellwether of the fall election.

The Maine Senate seat that includes much of Hancock County has been vacant since Democratic Sen. Louis Luchini resigned to take a job in the U.S. Small Business Administration. So on June 14 (primary day for most Maine voters), District 7 voters will choose between Democrat Nicole Grohoski and Republican Brian Langley, both of Ellsworth, and Green Independent Benjamin Meicklejohn of Mount Desert.

Grohoski currently represents Ellsworth in the Maine House while Langley has previously represented the region in both the House and the Senate.

It’s an odd situation because the Legislature has already gone home for the year. So whoever wins won’t be doing much legislating between now and November unless lawmakers are called back into session or they are appointed to committees that meet.

But no matter who wins in June, District 7 voters will likely have a chance to choose again in November. And both Langley and Grohoski are already declared candidates for the November race.

According to the latest campaign finance filings with the Maine Ethics Commission, the Maine Democratic State Committee has spent just shy of $70,000 on the race so far while Planned Parenthood Action Fund has chipped in another $5,000 to support Grohoski. The Maine Republican Party and the Maine Senate Republican Majority Committee PAC have spent nearly $30,000 to support Langley.

With so much talk of an enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans headed into the general election, both parties have incentive to turn out their voters in Senate District 7 on June 14 to either counter that narrative, or affirm it.

Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings. Maine's Political Pulse iswrittenby Maine Public by political correspondents Kevin Miller and Steve Mistler and produced by digital news reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.