In pivot to economy, top Maine Republicans shade abortion intentions
In this week’s Pulse: The GOP's abortion conundrum in purple states, big money opposes municipal broadband and renewed attempts to link Jared Golden to Nancy Pelosi.
Last week’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs. Wade was the culmination of a decadeslong conservative project that has fundamentally reshaped the federal judiciary and delivered a long-sought victory for the anti-abortion movement that helped inspire it. But Republican candidates running for office this year are talking about it as if it’s inconsequential — if they’re talking about it at all.
“I don’t have time for abortion. It’s that simple,” former Republican Gov. Paul LePage told reporters this week when asked whether he’d initiate a proposal to ban or restrict access to the procedure.
He added, “I don't think a governor should take a position on a social issue, and I don't.”
But LePage has previously taken a position on a social issue, specifically abortion. He routinely attended anti-abortion rallies, including a 2016 event designed to “recognize and mourn” the 1973 Roe decision that for nearly half a century barred states from banning the procedure.
“Right now, more people are dying than being born, so it’s time to have an opportunity to keep them alive,” LePage said at the rally, according to the Kennebec Journal. “We should not have abortion.”
Former Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, along with independent Tiffany Bond, is trying to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden this year. Poliquin would not say whether he supports any federal restrictions on abortion when reporters questioned him earlier this week. Instead, he said the issue will be rightfully decided by state legislatures.
“I trust the people of Maine, I trust their local representatives, who are with them everyday at diners and going to church and what have you with these folks,” he said.
Poliquin’s states-rights view on the issue now is a contrast to a candidate questionnaire from the National Pro-Life Alliance he filled out in 2014 when he first sought the 2nd District seat. Poliquin’s responses indicated that he saw the federal government playing a role in regulating and potentially banning abortion. He responded “yes” to 9 of the 10 questions, including giving parents the right to prevent their minor daughters from getting an abortion, instituting “cooling off” periods, supporting anti-abortion federal judges, backing a law that would declare life begins at conception and supporting a constitutional amendment banning abortion nationwide except to save the life of a mother — a ban that would effectively remove the issue from the purview of state legislatures.
The recent statements from Poliquin and LePage highlight a conundrum for GOP candidates now that Roe has fallen. While Republican candidates in deeply conservative states are hailing the court’s decision, it’s a problem for anti-abortion Republicans in purple and blue states where the issue could awaken a disenchanted Democratic electorate and maybe rile independent voters, too.
An NPR-Marist poll taken in the aftermath of the court’s decision showed a majority of respondents opposed overturning Roe, 56% to 40%. The gap deepens among Democrats, 88% of whom said they opposed the ruling, while 53% of independents did, too.
Some conservative pundits have noted that such polls suggest Americans aren’t as lopsidedly opposed to the decision as some had anticipated and, as a result, the ruling might not serve as much of a boon to Democrats in this year’s midterm elections.
The NPR poll doesn’t necessarily disprove such prognostications, but it sheds a little light. Two-thirds of respondents said they or someone they know has had an abortion, a finding that undercut LePage’s claim to reporters that “abortion affects few” and, potentially, the narrative that it’s a niche issue in the 2022 midterms. Additionally, 78% of Democrats said the court's decision made them more likely to vote this fall. A slim majority, 51%, said they would definitely vote for a candidate who would support a federal law to restore the right to an abortion.
While there have been no Maine-specific public polls post Roe, the obfuscating statements from Poliquin and LePage about their abortion policy intentions certainly suggest the issue presents some electoral danger for both of them. LePage, not known for his rhetorical care or precision during his two terms as governor, made sure to pivot to the issue Republicans view as their ticket to power this year: the economy.
“I’m more concerned about the fiscal and economic systems here in Maine,” he said. “As far as abortion, I’ve not gone there.”
LePage’s opponent, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, has and will continue to go there. Her campaign emails to supporters have been sharply focused on abortion and LePage’s plan to “dismantle reproductive rights” ever since the draft opinion was leaked in May.
A recent analysis by Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics suggests Democratic candidates like Mills might benefit most from the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that felled Roe vs. Wade. Kondik speculates that the ruling might not wipe out the GOP’s advantages (an unpopular President Joe Biden, inflation, gas prices, etc.), but it could affect tight races, “giving Democrats in bluish states and districts a good reason to stick with their party despite whatever economic concerns they may have.”
Opaque campaign targets municipal broadband
A massive influx of federal money over the past year was designed to expand or improve high-speed internet service, particularly in rural areas where existing service providers have determined that extending service isn’t profitable.
But the opportunity to bring broadband to unserved or underserved residents has also foisted onto small communities a style of politics and electioneering typically seen at the state level. It has also given local residents an up-close experience with the opacity of campaign spending by well-funded organizations and companies.
That was the case in Leeds and Hampden last year, when both towns were considering municipal-run broadband networks. The Hampden proposal was defeated amid a blitz of mailers, while a separate proposal in Leeds was backed by residents. In both instances, residents were confronted by influence campaigns conducted by a conservative advocacy group and Charter Communications, the national telecom behemoth that owns Spectrum and posted $51 billion revenues in 2020.
Those campaigns were also in play in Readfield and Southport. Both communities rejected municipal broadband proposals after being targeted by digital and mailer campaigns by the Alliance for Quality Broadband (AQB), a national coalition that includes Charter Communications, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Policy Institute, a conservative advocacy group.
The amount of spending by AQB on these local referendums is unclear. That’s because Maine campaign finance law exempts towns with fewer than 15,000 residents from having to report election spending on local ballot initiatives. Towns can opt into finance disclosure, but according to the Maine Ethics Commission, only three such towns have done so (Bar Harbor, Standish and Union). Approximately 15 Maine cities or towns have populations of 15,000 or more. That means the overwhelming majority of the nearly 500 incorporated Maine municipalities do not require campaign finance reporting on ballot initiatives.
Sen. Richard Bennett, R-Oxford, says that’s a problem, although he doesn’t fault towns for not having previously opted in. From his perspective, they probably didn’t have much reason to even consider it.
But he said the municipal broadband campaigns are highlighting a larger problem: The encroachment of big-money campaigns on local issues.
“People just need to be aware of who's funding this, and how much are they paying to run these campaigns,” said Bennett. “It would be nice to see that money invested in actually providing better service, whether it's broadband or cable services that they are already committed to in these towns.”
Bennett also had a scathing critique of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, who he has previously condemned for working on behalf of Central Maine Power and Hydro-Quebec during last year’s fight over the CMP transmission corridor.
“I think it really undermines the credibility and the integrity of an organization like the state chamber to serially do this while they purport to represent the interests of all Maine businesses,” Bennett said. “They really just represent the largest businesses in the state, not the smaller ones. And the interests, by the way, are not often the same between big transnational corporations that the state chamber actually represents, and the small businesses that they say they'd like to represent.”
Chamber president Dana Connors denied that his organization provided or received any funding to support AQB’s electioneering. He said he wasn’t aware of the group’s campaign efforts in Southport or Readfield until he saw news reports.
“There is no financial arrangement whatsoever with the coalition when it comes to the State Chamber,” Connors said. “We have no direct role in municipal elections ... and we're not involved or aware of any type of electioneering.”
New election, old trick: Linking Golden to Pelosi
Earlier this week, the second-ranking Republican in the U.S. House made a stop in Bangor to campaign for Poliquin in November’s race, a rematch of the 2018 contest against incumbent Democratic Rep. Jared Golden and independent Bond.
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana’s presence in Maine is another indication of how the 2nd District race is likely to be (once again) a front in the national battle for control of the U.S. House.
During a press conference, the two sought to portray Golden as a liberal closely aligned with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
“Well, he’s linked himself to Pelosi by voting with her on, as Bruce has said, on over 80% of the far-left radical bills that have come to the House,” Scalise said.
Poliquin and Scalise repeated that “over 80%” figure numerous times. And indeed, ProPublica shows Golden voting with Pelosi on 83% of the 101 votes tracked by the nonprofit news organization during the current session of Congress. Scalise and Pelosi have voted the same way on just 25% of those votes while Maine’s 1st District representative, Democrat Chellie Pingree voted the same way as the House Speaker on 100% of the bills that were tracked.
But Golden, in addition to voting against Pelosi as House Speaker twice, has voted opposite of his caucus leader more than just about every other Democrat. And many of those votes were on major Democratic initiatives, such as expanding gun background checks, the American Rescue Plan COVID relief bill, President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. On several of those bills, he was the only Democrat to vote with most or all Republicans on those issues.
Golden has also voted opposite of Democratic President Joe Biden’s position on key bills more than every other Democrat, according to the data-crunching journalism and analysis organization FiveThirtyEight.
But Golden still voted with Biden 84% of the time. And the closest any Republican came was 56%.
The 2nd is clearly a swing district, having voted for Golden twice, Poliquin two times before that, and for moderate Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud in the previous six elections. In 2020, President Donald Trump won the district, but Golden received more votes than he did.
Despite Poliquin’s attempts to paint Golden as being overly cozy with Pelosi, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that we’ll see the House speaker stumping for him in Maine this season. But in a case of wishful thinking, Scalise offered to help make it happen.
“Maybe out of my campaign fund I’d pay for the hotel room for her to stay and for the flight for her to come down,” he said.
Maine's Political Pulse was written this week political correspondents Steve Mistler and Kevin Miller and produced by digital editor Andrew Catalina. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.