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Voting in Maine elections is almost over. Here’s what’s next

mills lepage split.jpg
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Gov. Janet Mills (left) speaks to reporters after a rally, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, in York, Maine. Paul LePage, Republican candidate for governor of Maine, greets a supporter at a forum, Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, in Lewiston, Maine.

The candidates have made their arguments. They’ve debated one another. The issues have been examined, and so have the factors that may shape election outcomes.

With the final day of voting in the 2022 midterms four days away, the relentless ad campaigns will soon be over. Rather than look back at the well-worn campaign trail, this week’s Pulse looks ahead.

Where things stand

Democrats currently hold most of the political power in Maine. They control the state legislature. Gov. Janet Mills occupies the Blaine House.

Democrats also head the offices of Attorney General and Secretary of State, but that could change depending on how the 186 races for the Legislature shake out next week. Unlike most other states, Secretary of State and Attorney General are selected by the Maine Legislature, so the balance of power in the state House and Senate will likely determine whether Secretary of State Shenna Bellows or AG Aaron Frey retain their posts.

Two Democrats, U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, hold seats in Maine’s 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts, respectively. They serve in a Democratic-controlled Congress, although those majorities are narrow.

Maine Republicans have been in the legislative minority since 2019 when Democrats won a trifecta in the Legislature and Mills became the first woman elected governor of Maine. They’re hoping the return of former Gov. Paul LePage, who left office in 2019 after serving two terms, will help them retake at least one state house chamber, if not both.

Independent Sam Hunkler is also running.

There’s no public polling of individual legislative contests, although the University of Hampshire Survey Center in September showed Democrats with a slight edge in partisan ballot tests for legislative candidates.

The same UNH poll showed Mills leading LePage by a wide margin in late September and there have been several other surveys suggesting the same. The campaigns and groups working independently from them are spending like the race is much closer.

The same goes for Golden’s race against former Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and independent Tiffany Bond. The contest closely resembles the one that lifted Golden to victory in 2018 after a ranked-choice voting runoff, although then Democrats had the national winds at their backs, while Republicans appear to have it this time.

If LePage wins

There have been a lot of words spent on LePage’s purported transformation to a more policy-focused politician as he eyes a third, non-consecutive term. However the discussion often belies a truth about LePage’s past: He always cared about policy, he just couldn’t convince many fellow Republicans to go along with his grander, contentious proposals, nevermind Democrats.

Republican legislators helped thwart or discourage several LePage initiatives, including right-to-work legislation that weakens unions and a sweeping tax overhaul that partially funded a dramatic income tax cut by expanding Maine’s sales tax to currently exempted goods and services.

A third LePage term could look a lot different. He’s been involved in the recruitment and training of legislative candidates. Republican lawmakers who opposed him in the past have either retired or been purged from the ranks of a Maine Republican Party dominated by loyalists of the former governor and former President Donald Trump.

So what will LePage do if he’s elected and Republicans gain legislative majorities? While inflation has been a focus of his campaign, there isn’t much LePage will be able to propose to pull down the price of goods. Even a gas tax holiday, which LePage floated earlier this year, runs the risk of further depleting the highway budget -- although LePage previously supported asking voters to approve borrowing for transportation funding.

On the campaign trail he has reprised his interest in cutting and eventually eliminating Maine’s income tax, although he has steered well clear of a detailed plan to do it.

Cutting government expenses and staff will likely become a priority. He hasn’t made any definitive statements about cutting Medicaid, which provides health care to low-income Mainers, but he cut the program when he was governor and fiercely opposed eligibility expansion through the Affordable Care Act.

As with any governor, LePage will also control the state bureaucracy and that means he gets to choose many of the officials who head state agencies, including the Maine CDC, Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Public Safety. Such cabinet picks are subject to Senate approval, which means Republican control will be key to giving LePage the cabinet he wants.

Other changes loom -- too many to list here. But LePage was a disruptive governor during his two terms between 2011 and 2018. He also had an affinity for theatrics: A Christmas tree and pink plastic pigs to express his displeasure with a budget negotiated by Republican and Democratic lawmakers; Matryoshka dolls to criticize then-Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton; a television wheeled into the Hall of Flags to broadcast his disagreements with Democratic lawmakers.

State government and politics will look a lot different if he returns.

If Mills wins

Mills’ reelection campaign has largely centered on defending and promoting her first term, as well as her vow to protect access to abortion. Her discussion of future priorities has been fairly limited and often framed as a continuation of the policies she’s already advanced.

Public education funding, workforce and housing development, and climate change initiatives have been a focus for Mills.

So has reversing the policies of her predecessor, LePage. In some cases the latter meant implementing the initiatives he rejected (expanding Medicaid after voters approved it, authorizing voter-approved land conservation bonds, hiring public health nurses, etc.).

If reelected, Mills’ governing agenda will most likely be dominated by the problems she faces now, primarily inflation and high energy costs. Like LePage, Mills won’t be able to do much to curb inflation and her antidote this year -- $850 relief payments -- might not be a viable option during a second term, especially if efforts by the Federal Reserve to fight inflation via interest rate hikes triggers a recession and slows state revenues. Helping Mainers pay for, or even obtain, home heating oil will also be an immediate priority.

Mills has campaigned on her willingness to engage with Republicans to solve problems and there have been times when that approach has actually worked. She credited Republicans for coming up with the relief check idea, and their votes of support ensured that checks went out quickly this year.

But Mills’ first term wasn’t exactly a bonanza of bipartisanship. The pandemic and the resulting emergency powers that put Mills in control of the state’s response heightened tensions with GOP legislators. So did Democrats’ decision last year to enact part of the state’s two-year budget without Republican support. Mills’ COVID vaccine mandate for health care workers, and the resulting inflammatory anti-vaccine rhetoric from several Republican legislators, also undercut whatever comity existed.

Will a second Mills term help with a reset? Maybe. After all, Republican votes will be needed to pass emergency legislation on, say, home heating oil relief, even if Democrats hold their majorities in the Legislature.

Mills governs quietly. That’s not to say she doesn’t exert influence and power. She does (see: tribal sovereignty bill). However, her approach is more conventional than LePage’s. That seems unlikely to change if she secures a second term.

The Legislature

There’s a reason political action committees and party committees are spending millions of dollars to influence legislative races in Maine and around the country.

Legislatures increasingly play pivotal roles in shaping policy and decisions, sometimes leading to a domino effect that can lead to changes in federal law. That’s especially true this year, when state houses will play an influential role in determining the future of abortion and voting rights, as well as education and health care policy.

And, as noted earlier, the Maine Legislature directly chooses the state’s top legal officer (Attorney General) and elections official (Secretary of State). If Republicans gain majorities they’ll get to pick those posts, which will have implications for voting administration and what lawsuits the AG decides to pursue.

Who controls the majority will also determine whether the next governor will be able to advance her or his policy agenda.

Maine Democrats have controlled the Legislature since 2018 and they’ve held at least one chamber since late 2012. Republicans last held both chambers between 2011 and 2012 after they and LePage rode a national Republican-wave election to power.

The national landscape suggests a trifecta -- controlling the House, Senate and governor’s office -- is at least possible for the GOP this year, although Maine Democrats and affiliated groups are spending heavily to prevent it.

GOP control will undoubtedly yield legislation to restrict abortion. The question is whether any of it would become law. More than 100 Republican candidates were endorsed this year by the Christian Civic League of Maine, an influential anti-abortion group. Enacting abortion restrictions will also depend on what the governor does, whether it’s LePage or Mills. Mills has vowed to veto any bill that restricts access and overriding her will be difficult unless the GOP somehow attains a supermajority in both chambers. LePage has said he wants to preserve current abortion protections, but the CCLM has told supporters not to believe him.

Another Democratic-controlled Legislature, along with a second term for Mills, might look similar to the past four years. The governor has stymied progressives’ more ambitious plans for tax restructuring and criminal justice laws and that seems likely to continue.

Split control of the Legislature would yield unpredictable legislative outcomes, regardless of whether LePage or Mills are in office. Divided government can sometimes foster more bipartisan outcomes. It can also lead to partisan standoffs, just as it did in 2017 when LePage and House Republicans forced a government shutdown over a budget dispute.

Congress

There’s a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz in the 2nd Congressional District race between Golden, Poliquin and Bond, but the outcome there isn’t expected to determine whether Republicans or Democrats control the U.S. House of Representatives next year. That’s because the GOP needs to win only a handful of seats to retake the majority and it has plenty of targets besides the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi River -- to say nothing of the 1st Congressional District where Pingree appears to have a commanding lead over Republican challenger Ed Thelander.

It’s difficult for individual members of Congress to pass bills even when their party is in the majority. It will be even tougher if Golden and Pingree hold their seats and the GOP wins a majority in the House. However, Pingree’s position on the Appropriations Committee will at least put her in a good position to direct earmark spending to Maine should the recently revived practice continue.

A Poliquin and/or a Thelander victory will undoubtedly put them in the spotlight next year. While the GOP leaders have recently downplayed the prospects of impeaching President Joe Biden, Trump Republicans are expected to push for it, potentially after conducting investigations of the president’s son, Hunter Biden.

There’s also the question of Republicans’ declining support for backing Ukraine in its efforts to repel an invasion by Russia. GOP resistance to providing military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine has steadily increased since the invasion was launched in February. Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, has indicated that there will be no more “blank checks” if his party obtains control of the House.

A Republican House could also push for a national abortion ban or restrictions. However, the ability to pass such legislation will depend on whether Republicans can win enough seats in the Senate to get past the 60-vote threshold to avoid the filibuster.

Neither of Maine’s senators, Republican Sen. Susan Collins and independent Sen. Angus King, are on the ballot this year. But Republicans are hoping to gain control of the Senate with big victories in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania.

If Republicans re-take the Senate, Collins is poised to become the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. That is one of the most powerful committee posts in all of Congress because the two appropriations committees decide how to spend the multi-trillion-dollar federal budget. And as chairwoman, Collins would have considerable sway over spending priorities, not to mention ensuring Maine projects get funded.

Programming notes

Election Day will prompt a few changes for next week’s Political Pulse. Rather than air our weekly segment on Friday, the Pulse team will again join Maine Calling for a live broadcast Wednesday, the day after the election, beginning at 11 a.m. Podcast listeners can expect a lightly edited version of the broadcast to post Wednesday afternoon. In observance of Veterans Day, there will be no Pulse broadcast or podcast on Friday, Nov. 11, although Maine Calling will have a special Veterans Day program.

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.