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Could student loan forgiveness factor into Maine's races?

New graduates walk into the High Point Solutions Stadium before the start of the Rutgers University graduation ceremony in Piscataway Township, N.J., on May 13, 2018.
Seth Wenig
New graduates walk into the High Point Solutions Stadium before the start of the Rutgers University graduation ceremony in Piscataway Township, N.J., on May 13, 2018.

In this week’s Pulse: The political wake of Biden's student loan forgiveness plan, the Libertarian argument in support of abortion rights, and the six-year anniversary of The Voicemail.

President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan unveiled this week was viewed as both a partial fulfillment of a 2020 campaign promise but also an attempt to lure more progressives – particularly younger, debt-laden voters – to the polls this November.

We need only look at the frosty reception the proposal received from some politicians in Maine, however, to see how student debt cancellation could be a political gamble for Biden and the Democrats.

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins called the plan “inherently unfair” to many Americans and added that Biden is “requiring a hardworking logger to subsidize a graduate of Yale who is earning far more but has student loans.”

“The president should be taking action to reduce inflationary pressures; with this move, he potentially makes them worse,” said U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, the Democratic incumbent in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. “It is out of step with the needs and values of working class Americans, and I do not support the president’s decision.”

Golden has a tough reelection fight in a district that leans increasingly conservative. And it’s impossible to know at this point whether the debt cancellation plan will affect either of Maine’s congressional races or the contests for governor and all 186 seats in the state Legislature.

There is no doubt, however, that it will make life easier for some Mainers who stand to see up to $20,000 in college debt erased.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, roughly 186,000 Maine residents – or about 13.7% of the state’s population – are currently carrying federal student loan debt. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggests another 40,000 Mainers have private student loans.

The average student loan debt in Maine is about $33,900. Although that is below the national average of about $37,700, Mainers also earn less than the national average.

The left-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy estimates that about 177,000 of federal borrowers in Maine will qualify for forgiveness based on the income caps of $125,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples. And those who receive some relief may have more money to pay for groceries, child care and heating oil – or be able to sock more away for a future home, to start a family or launch a business.

But this is a politics newsletter, and we’re interested in two questions: Will the president’s initiative resonate with Mainers concerned about skyrocketing college costs? Or frustrate Mainers who will see it as a taxpayer bailout for college grads who made the personal choice to take on debt?

There’s no polling specific to Maine on this topic. However, a national poll conducted by NPR/Ipsos in June found that 55% of respondents supported forgiving up to $10,000 of a person’s student loan debt. Support slid as the dollar figure grew, however. And not surprisingly, those with student loan debt were much more likely to support cancellation than those who weren’t.

Statistically speaking, about one-third of Maine residents hold bachelor's degrees or higher. In the 2nd Congressional District, where Golden faces challenges from former Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and independent Tiffany Bond, just 25% of residents have bachelor's degrees or higher. It’s 41% in the more liberal and more affluent 1st District.

More than half of the state’s student loan borrowers are under 35 years old, and roughly 19% are 24 or younger. That latter demographic doesn’t typically turn out in high numbers for midterm elections, which is a trend that Democrats would like to reverse this year given their political headwinds.

Maine also already offers several types of loan forgiveness aimed at encouraging certain high-demand professionals – such as teachers, dentists and veterinarians – to work in the state. The Maine Student Loan Repayment Credit program also offers up to $2,500 per year as a refundable tax credit for college grads who live and work in Maine. And starting this year, recent high school graduates can receive two years of free tuition at community colleges in Maine.

Mills cited that program Thursday in a tweet, saying “making college affordable and tackling student debt is important to me,” but that did not explicitly endorse Biden’s plan.

Maine Republican Party executive director Jason Savage responded by accusing the Democrat of “dodging important federal policy discussions” as she uses federal money to prop up the state budget.

“Of course, we know why she's dodging this one. Biden's student loan plan is deeply unpopular,” Savage said.

Abortion rights: the libertarian argument

Midterm voters increasingly view abortion rights as a top concern, and advocates and some Democratic candidates are using quasi-libertarian rhetoric about government and privacy to win voters in swing and conservative-leaning districts.

It’s a tactic already beginning to surface in the hotly contested race for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District between incumbent Golden, Poliquin and Bond. It also figured prominently in this week’s special election victory by New York Democrat Pat Ryan in a Hudson Valley swing district.

“How can we be a free country if the government tries to control women’s bodies?” Ryan said in an ad that ran prior to Tuesday’s election. “That’s not the country I fought to defend.”

Ryan and Golden are combat veterans running in tough districts for Democrats. Both are also running hard on abortion rights. Golden repeatedly highlighted his support for access to the procedure before, and after, the U.S. Supreme Court this summer overturned a ruling that for nearly 50 years barred states from banning abortion.

So has Ryan. His campaign also tailored his support for abortion access as a fight against the government. That kind of message worked in red Kansas, where abortion rights activists convincingly beat back a referendum that would have removed abortion protections from the state constitution. Several analyses of the winning effort highlighted ads and talking points aimed at persuading all voters, not just Democrats.

“We definitely used messaging strategies that would work regardless of party affiliation,” Jae Gray, a field organizer for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, told the Washington Post. “We believe every Kansan has a right to make personal health-care decisions without government overreach — that’s obviously a conservative-friendly talking point.”

Talking about abortion restrictions as a matter of government intrusion might also work in Maine’s 2nd District. Bond, the independent candidate, has already framed it that way, describing abortion on her website as a privacy issue.

“It shouldn’t matter if you are pro-life or pro-choice, you should be pro-government shouldn’t be that big and should stay out of my business,” she states. “And if that hasn’t sufficiently sold you, perhaps consider the government power to tell a person they must continue a pregnancy is the same power that would allow for a government to tell you that you must end one (and how you must live generally).”

Golden described the court ruling as a “grave mistake” that will yield “serious and harmful consequences for millions of women.”

Poliquin, meanwhile, has tried to pivot from the issue. He has previously run as an anti-abortion candidate. That position won him the backing of the Christian Civic League of Maine, a strident anti-abortion organization. He repeatedly used it as a wedge issue in defeating former Maine Senate President Kevin Raye in the 2014 2nd District GOP primary contest, with some observers arguing that Poliquin’s anti-abortion stance helped him.

However, that was a Republican primary, and that was before this year’s Supreme Court Dobbs decision transformed the abortion debate from a partisan litmus test to one that voters view as directly affecting them and their families.

A survey by the Pew Research Center illustrated the shift. It showed that abortion has jumped as an issue of importance to registered voters this year, from 43% in March and pre-Dobbs, to 56% in August.

The 13-point jump was the largest of any of the election issues Pew surveyed, although the economy remained the top concern for an overwhelming majority of respondents.

The Voicemail, relived

The Maine Democratic Party this week ramped up its effort to puncture the narrative pushed by the campaign of Republican Paul LePage that the former governor has mellowed and abandoned the combative conduct that marked his two terms in office.

In doing so, the party used the six-year anniversary of what is arguably the apex of LePage’s canon of controversies: A profanity-laden voicemail that he left for Drew Gattine, a former Democratic lawmaker who had criticized the governor for using race to justify his crackdown on the illicit drug trade in Maine.

The result is a video starring Gattine, the current chairman of the Maine Democratic Party. Gattine discusses the origins of the voicemail (LePage’s disproven claim that his binder of drug trafficking arrests was 90% filled with people of color), his reaction to the voicemail and LePage’s subsequent fantasy — which he relayed to a pair of reporters — of challenging Gattine to a duel with pistols.

Gattine then attempts to tie the episode to a pattern of behavior.

“It always just really struck me, the violent imagery that he uses to describe things when he’s in conflict with people,” Gattine says.

The video segues to a montage of similarly bellicose comments the governor has made about the press and political foes, including his most recent dustup with a tracker hired by the Democratic Party to video him saying or doing embarrassing things.

The video ends with Gattine juxtaposing LePage’s conduct and chaotic governing with his Democratic opponent, Gov. Janet Mills.

The party also released a radio ad that attempts to link LePage’s notorious voicemail to his recent threat against the tracker.

Leftovers from the notebook

  • Golden is once again talking up his moderate (or independent) streak in his second television ad of the campaign. In the first 60-second ad, the Democrat states that “I was the only Democrat to vote against trillions of dollars of President Biden’s agenda because I knew it would make inflation worse.” In his latest ad, which is slated to start airing on Friday, Golden is shown sitting at a restaurant table, with his tattooed arms on full display as he literally rips into a cooked lobster. In a voice-over, he then says, “Last year, I cracked Biden’s aggressive spending agenda.” The ads are aimed at debunking the messaging from Poliquin, seeking to link Golden to Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and progressive Democrats.
  • Independent Sam Hunkler is hitting the road and making the media rounds as part of his “Stand with Sam 2022” campaign for governor. Hunkler made a small splash in May when he filed enough petition signatures to join Mills and LePage on the November ballot, but then went quiet for a few months. A retired physician from Washington County, Hunkler has said his low-budget, self-financed campaign will focus on finding consensus and setting aside partisan politics to address issues important to Mainers.
  • The Maine Republican Party has been hammering Mills on everything from lobster bait supplies to whether she will renew her pledge to not raise taxes (and everything in between). On taxes, Mills seemed to hedge a bit this week when she was asked whether she would renew that pledge, saying that she was “not interested in raising taxes,” according to the Bangor Daily News. Her campaign subsequently sought to clarify, saying Mills would not raise taxes. But Maine GOP executive director Savage pounced, saying Mills “just dodged questions about raising taxes, then she left the door open to raising taxes.”

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by chief political correspondent Steve Mistler and State House correspondent Kevin Miller, and produced by digital 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.