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18 lingering questions with Election Day on the horizon

Gubernatorial candidates Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage at a debate hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine.
Rebecca Conley
Maine Public
Gubernatorial candidates Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage at a debate hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine.

In this week’s Pulse: 18 questions answered for the 18 days remaining until the Maine election.

Voting is well underway in the 2022 midterms. The issues and arguments are established and so is the multimillion-dollar campaign accompanying them.

There are just 18 days remaining before Election Day and, as it turns out, we have 18 questions. Some of the answers might help determine outcomes in races for governor, the Legislature and Congress. Others are merely campaign curiosities.

1. Has the GOP chained Dems to inflation and gas prices?

Polling suggests Republicans have been somewhat successful in congressional contests, but less so in state-level contests for governor and the Legislature, at least in Maine.

High fuel prices and the costs of goods have been considered potential drivers of a Republican wave election, as well as history favoring the party out of power in the White House. A recent NPR/Marist poll provided some bright spots for Democrats, including a gradual uptick in President Joe Biden’s approval rating, but there are also signs that Democrats might not be able to defy the political gravity of midterms.

One ominous sign for Democrats is the congressional ballot test. When voters are asked whether they prefer a Democrat or a Republican this year, NPR/Marist polls showed a statistical tie. As NPR noted, Democrats traditionally need a decent lead in that test to perform well in congressional elections.

But Maine’s two House races might not fit neatly into this framing. The 1st District contest between Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican challenger Ed Thelander has not drawn outside spending, which is typically an indication that a race is competitive. By contrast, the 2nd District contest between U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, former Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and independent Tiffany Bond has drawn more than $25 million in outside spending. However, GOP efforts to link Golden to inflation and Democratic leaders are dicey because the Democrat has opposed much of the government spending that Republicans claim has driven inflation.

2. Will Maine Dems rue the dead carbon tax bill?

The Maine Republican Party and aligned political groups certainly hope so, which is why voters keep hearing about a bill that died three years ago in the Legislature.

But the GOP’s focus on the defeated carbon tax bill of 2019 also highlights one of the facts noted above: State-level polls suggest that voters are not blaming local Democrats for high gas prices.

That’s likely why Republicans are talking about the carbon tax bill and its estimated 40-cent gas and tax increase as if it actually passed, or that it might if Democrats can maintain control in Augusta.

3. Will abortion save Democrats?

Polling suggests abortion rights could save congressional Democrats from disaster in November, although possibly not so much that it will help them retain current majorities.

However, the issue is more acute in state-level races because the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade effectively put the issue in the hands of state legislators and governors. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has made abortion rights a central argument for a second term as she frames former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a longtime abortion opponent, as an untrustworthy steward of Maine’s abortion protections enshrined in state law. LePage has said repeatedly that he has no intention of changing that law, but Democrats are making the case that he shouldn’t be believed — and so are some abortion opponents like the Christian Civic League of Maine.

Some GOP legislative candidates are trying to avoid the issue altogether, but many of them have anti-abortion voting records. Additionally, the Christian Civic League has recently identified 101 anti-abortion candidates running for the Legislature through its endorsement list.

Still, the issue is a nuanced one for many voters and it might not be black and white in local races.

4. Can Republicans win without an inflation solution?

Inflation is a global problem, although there are some, including former Obama White House advisor Larry Summers, who argue that congressional Democrats worsened the problem domestically by passing a massive spending bill designed to boost the pandemic-stalled economy. (There are also economists who argue that the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was necessary.)

But while the GOP has vigorously highlighted the problem of higher prices — and the idea that Democrats have had something to do with it — the party hasn’t offered much in the way of solutions. Some economists have warned that the GOP’s traditional orthodoxy of spending cuts and tax cuts isn’t helpful. This week the disastrous rollout of unpaid tax cuts by the conservative majority in Great Britain tanked markets and weakened the value of the British pound, leading to the resignation of libertarian Prime Minister Liz Truss.

Nevertheless, voters might be less interested in solutions than they are in punishing the politicians they think responsible for shrinking the value of their paychecks. The GOP seems to be banking on precisely that sentiment.

5. Who are the undecided voters in the governor’s race?

We don’t know, but they’re out there.

That might seem hard to fathom for those who have followed the records and rivalry of LePage and Mills, and polling suggests that the number of undecided voters is pretty small. Nevertheless, if the race is as tight as initially forecast, these voters could play an outsize role in determining whether Mills is reelected, or if LePage secures a third, nonconsecutive term. (They’ll have significantly less of an impact if recent polls showing Mills with a decent lead are correct.)

Reaching undecided voters partially explains the recent explosion in spending on the race by groups working independently of the candidate campaigns. However, some of that messaging is also designed to keep partisan voters motivated to turnout on Election Day.

6. Is the LePage rebrand working?

A better question might be whether “LePage 2.0” is real or simply a campaign strategy, but only the former governor and his advisors know that for certain.

Democrats have attempted to provide their own answer, relentlessly framing LePage’s touted transformation as a cynical ploy to win over Maine’s notoriously fickle independent voters. They warn that the chaotic, theatrical governing and boorish behavior will return if LePage wins on Nov. 8.

The former governor has at times tempered his rhetoric during the campaign, which might be why Democrats have repeatedly highlighted his past statements and conduct in a way that might make it difficult for voters to fathom such a drastic behavioral change.

There are also some questions about whether the rebranding effort might dampen enthusiasm for voters who liked LePage 1.0 precisely because of his bombastic conduct.

7. Can Mills win on her record?

Mills’ campaign slogan is “moving Maine forward.”

So is LePage’s.

It’s an interesting choice for both campaigns given that so much of the discussion about Mills and LePage is centered on what the two well-known pols have done. That’s true of Mills, who has made a concerted effort to highlight legislative achievements like inflation relief payments, public school funding, no tax increases and Maine’s fiscal outlook.

It’s a pretty standard strategy for an incumbent and it’s one that might pay off if a plurality of Maine voters don’t require a ton of future policy promises. Mills’ campaign also seems to be framing her future agenda as one that builds on past achievements, rather than one full of radical changes.

8. Is ‘woke education’ a good wedge for the GOP?

Nationwide, Republicans have attempted to use pandemic school closures and concerns over LGBTQ and race teachings to regain the suburban voters who rebelled against former President Donald Trump in 2020. It was a successful strategy for Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin in Virginia last year and LePage and Republican legislative candidates are trying to make it an issue in 2022.

It’s difficult to know whether those efforts have been successful in Maine given the lack of public polling on that issue. It’s also probably premature to read too much into the recent pivot to pocketbook concerns in ads financed by the political action committee Maine Families First, a local front for the American Principles Project. APP is the same group that bolstered Youngkin last year and his education tack was largely seen as a blueprint for other GOP gubernatorial candidates. LePage has followed it, releasing an outline of a so-called Parents Bill of Rights this fall. Republicans and aligned interest groups have since tried to prove that public school teachers, working under unwritten orders from Mills, have attempted to indoctrinate Maine school kids in “wokeism” — a term co-opted by conservative activists to describe unchecked progressivism.

Democrats were initially caught off-guard by these attacks, but they’ve since framed the woke indoctrination as an attack on public education and teachers, as well as an excuse to ban books conservatives don’t like.

9. Who will control the Legislature?

New legislative districts this year are expected to make State House races more competitive than they already were. Democrats have been able to hold the House since 2012, even after the 2014 GOP wave election. The Senate is almost always up for grabs. But some analysts suggest both chambers are in play this year, which explains why outside groups have already spent more than $2 million trying to affect the balance of power in the State House.

10. Will lobstering regulations be a factor?

Republicans have been nurturing this election fight for the past several years as they attempt to frame the Democratic conservation and energy agenda as antithetical to the survival of Maine’s most iconic industry.

A lot of nuance and context has been lost in this debate, including how right whale regulations now affecting the industry were made possible via multiple changes to the federal Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Those changes occurred regardless of whether Republicans, Democrats and independents occupied Maine’s congressional seats, not to mention who was in the Blaine House.

But nuance and context are routine campaign casualties. What matters now is whether the Republican arguments are resonating with a sizable portion of the electorate, not just the lobster industry.

11. Has LePage cornered the business vote?

This might seem like a silly question for those who watched LePage win 2010 and 2014 with a decidedly pro-business, anti-regulation platform. But the rise of Trumpism and the corresponding ascendant immigration hardliners in the GOP have created tension between business groups and some Republican politicians. While Trump and LePage’s previous immigration rhetoric was cheered by some activists in the party, it hasn’t been welcomed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups who view immigrants and asylum seekers as solutions to persistent workforce shortages. That sentiment has apparently prompted LePage to adopt a softer stance on asylum seekers, but a story published by Maine Public this week showed how he’s making different promises to different audiences and sometimes contradicting himself.

Mills, for her part, has had a relatively good relationship with business groups like the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. While there are certainly business owners who were upset by her pandemic mitigation measures, her moves in the early stages of the pandemic were often accompanied by supportive statements from the state chamber.

12. Why is a GOP mega donor helping Golden?

Jeff Yass is a billionaire who made his fortune off options trading. He’s also a kingmaker in Pennsylvania politics and one of the leading funders of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax conservative behemoth that engages in congressional contests and almost exclusively on behalf of Republicans. Yass gave Club for Growth nearly $7.5 million last year.

But Yass is also the main funder of a new spending group called the Moderate PAC. He has given the group $1 million, and so far, it has only spent $182,000 — all on Golden’s behalf.

It’s unclear why, although Golden has developed a reputation for blocking Democrats’ big spending bills, including Biden’s enormous Build Back Better proposal last year. That might be why the Democrat last year drew a max donation from Harlan Crow, who co-founded the Club for Growth.

Club for Growth hasn’t intervened in the Golden-Poliquin-Bond race, which has drawn more than $25 million in spending from similar outside groups. And its absence is also notable since it spent significant money on the 2nd District Republican primary in a failed attempt to lift former state Sen. Eric Brakey to victory.

13. Has Poliquin consolidated GOP support?

Poliquin’s bid to reclaim his old 2nd District seat has been an interesting one.

He initially drew several primary challengers before defeating the only one who declined to drop out of the race, Liz Caruso. Caruso had little name recognition and she did not have enough cash to raise her profile through ad campaigns, but she still managed to get nearly 40% of the GOP primary vote against Poliquin, a well-known politician who has run for a political office seven times since 2010.

Poliquin struggled to unify the GOP base when he lost to Golden in 2018. This year he’s often accompanied LePage in campaign events, and as the Bangor Daily News noted earlier this month, the former governor has also made multiple appearances in ads boosting Poliquin’s candidacy. LePage enjoys staunch loyalty from the GOP base. Poliquin and LePage also have the same campaign advisor, Brent Littlefield.

14. Will Bond be a factor in CD-2 race?

Bond played a significant role in the 2018 race, as her second-place votes helped Golden defeat Poliquin in the ranked-choice voting runoff. Once again the Portland attorney is not running a traditional campaign; she’s largely relying on Twitter, YouTube town halls and press attention to boost her profile. She has described the fundraising and advertising focus of her rivals as an affront to 2nd District residents.

A poll early this month by the University of Hampshire showed Bond well behind Golden and Poliquin, but still drawing 8%. If she can hold or grow that level of support, she’ll almost certainly affect the outcome of the race even if she doesn’t win it.

That’s because ranked-choice voting is in play in this race, which means that if neither Golden or Poliquin break 50% after the initial count, Bond’s second-place votes could determine the winner — just like in 2018.

15. How about Hunkler?

LePage and Mills aren’t the only gubernatorial candidates on the ballot this year. Independent Sam Hunkler is also running, and like Bond, he’s spurning the traditional campaigning in favor of a low-budget operation.

But Hunkler may not have as much of an impact on his race as Bond likely will in her contest. The most recent polls show him polling in the low single digits. He indicated on Twitter that is not enough to qualify him for the WGME/Bangor Daily News gubernatorial debate that will take place Monday.

Hunkler did participate in the Maine Public/Portland Press Herald debate and he has done TV and press interviews, including on Maine Calling.

16. Will the debates influence voters?

That prospect seems more likely in the gubernatorial race than the congressional contests.

The first debate in the governor’s race was certainly newsy, drawing attention from the New York Times and Washington Post.

However, as Election Day gets closer, candidates usually act safer. That has been true of Mills and it’s likely it will stay that way, especially if her campaign believes she’s winning. Of course, if LePage is losing — and he knows it — he might take some chances on the debate stage.

17. Are there more gov. debates?

There are three more left on the gubernatorial schedule. The WGME/BDN debate will take place Monday, followed by a News Center Maine/Maine State Chamber of Commerce debate on Thursday. The final gubernatorial debate will be hosted by WABI-WAGM on Nov. 3.

18. Will there be an October surprise?

Unclear, but debates can be a good place to spring one.

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.