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Analyst: Mills won re-election on a record that was hard for GOP to attack

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills celebrates at her reelection party, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Portland, Maine. Mills defeated Republican Paul LePage and independent Sam Hunkler.
Robert F. Bukaty
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills celebrates at her reelection party, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Portland, Maine. Mills defeated Republican Paul LePage and independent Sam Hunkler.

After an election that saw many incumbent Democrats defend key elected roles in Maine, Maine Public spoke with University of Maine at Farmington political science professor Jim Melcher.

He's a longtime observer of Maine politics and says that the performance of top Democrats was stronger than he expected.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Melcher: Well, it's it's a little bit like the nation as a whole. Normally in a presidential midterm year, you expect that the president's party, the Democrats, would take a lot of hits, and with inflation being as high as it was, and with President Biden's approval ratings not being the strongest, it's quite striking how independent of some of those trends Maine has been. You know, so often in Maine elections at the local and state level, we were kind of looking at our our local things, but definitely a better day for the Democrats than I expected. And those recent polls coming out of New Hampshire showing the governor and second district races getting tightened, I thought the Democrats did better than I expected for sure.

Gratz: Governor Mills won reelection, something that actually had been foreshadowed by the polls. Republican former Governor Paul LePage told supporters last night he thought he had failed to deliver a strong enough message. Did LePage somehow lose that race, or do you think Mills won it?

I think to some extent this race was won by Mills or lost by LePage before the election started. A lot of the issues that Mills raised were Paul LePage's behavior in office before. I thought LePage did a very good job of trying to seem more moderate. His last commercials were very good on that. So I think that cast some things in that the campaigns couldn't change. And then there wasn't a strong independent candidate this time. When LePage had run before, Eliot Cutler divided the anti-LePage vote. I think Republicans in general in the country ran too much on criticizing Democrats and didn't come up with their own plans. I don't think Paul LePage ran a bad campaign as such; I think Janet Mills ran an excellent campaign, and by her record in office didn't give LePage some of the kinds of issues he likes to criticize Democrats for. In other states, Democrats were painted as weak on crime, and that was difficult for him. He's often criticized Democrats for raising taxes, and she could say, I haven't done that. And the whole bag tax thing, or the grocery tax thing, turned out to not be so. So I think that LePage could have done better at having more of a positive message. But I think it was circumstance and Mills running a better campaign. I really don't think LePage ran a bad campaign.

A high profile Democrat considered most vulnerable yesterday was Second District Congressman Jared golden. Now he did better than he did eight years ago in what was really a classic rematch against two other candidates. How did you think that race has come out as it's headed to a ranked choice vote?

Yeah, he's just short of the 50% he needs to get by [without a ranked-choice runoff]. Well four years ago when they ran against each other was a good Democratic year. And some people could have said, well, you know, that's a fluke. There was a lot of anti-Trump vote. I think he ran a very effective campaign. I think he answered questions about inflation. And I think part of that race was that he always had an advantage over Bruce Poliquin, in terms of how much people liked them, and so forth. But he had a kind of a difficult path to walk as one of the Democrats in a district that, that Donald Trump won there. There weren't a lot of those. And he walks that tightrope, I thought quite effectively in his campaign. I thought the race would be closer than it was, again, those most recent polls have shown the race tightening. But he seemed to have answers for a lot of the criticisms thrown his way. And again, I think the Republicans didn't have as clear of a positive message. They were maybe more on the attack than than they should have been.

There was a little bit of redistricting in that district. Might that have helped Golden at all?

It might have helped him a bit. We've had several reapportionment in a row where the maps have been tinkered changing Kennebec County around. I live in Augusta, and we were in the area that was suddenly moved to the second district and there were some more Republican towns moved out of it. I think that probably helped him a little bit, but not enough to account for all of that margin. So I think it was helpful, but I don't think that was the dominant factor at all.

We have a little over a minute here. Looks like both houses of the Legislature will also stay in Democratic hands. What do all these results tell us about where Mainers are on policy?

You know, I think some of what a lot of Mainers were voting for was we're tired of conflict. We're tired of argument. We want people that are offering us practical solutions. And, you know, there's certainly places where Republicans who did that did pretty well. So I think it was a case of Maine being relatively independent from national factors. I think it's still you know, it's certainly not a Democratic dominated state like Massachusetts is, and people will have to work together. But I think people responded to the candidates that talked about reaching out across the aisle and trying to be cooperative. And I think that's a lot of where Maine voters are. I think that's a lot of what Janet Mills sold in her campaign. And I think that's what we're looking at in Maine this morning.