In an election cycle that saw Republicans post significant gains at the expense of Maine Democrats, some pundits have concluded that it's time for the state's progressives to move to the center. But Maine Democrats are doubling down, retaining progressive leaders in the House and Senate. And the party's new choice for state chair continues a liberal ideological preference.
It's not unusual for a state party chairman to resign after big losses in an election. And so Democratic state Chair Ben Grant's decision to leave his position was not entirely unexpected after Democratic candidates for the governor's office, the 2nd Congressional District, the House and the Maine Senate all posted losses this month.
But Democrats seem largely unfazed by the state's increasingly reddish political hue. Phil Bartlett, the party's new state chair, says it wasn't the party's candidates or its message that cost them potential wins two weeks ago.
"One thing we need to do is a better job to communicate our message and develop policies that will really speak to the very real economic anxieties that people have," Bartlett said. "All across the state, people are working hard, playing by the rules and are falling further behind. We need to show how the Democratic policies that we're moving forward will help them to have a chance at a better life, a secure retirement and allow their kids to do better than they ever dreamed possible."
A progressive former state senator, Bartlett says, over the next year, he will determine voters' priorities through a series of regional meetings. This year, much of the Democratic message focused on a higher minimum wage, clean energy and Medicaid expansion. Outgoing party chair Ben Grant says that while those issues remain important to Democrats, it's imperative that the party emphasize its accomplishments as well as its goals.
"Personally, from where I sit, I think this was an election about substantive accomplishments versus a process argument," Grant says. "Congressman Michaud ran on being able to bring people together and be a compromiser, but the people of Maine picked someone who stood very firm for his principles and pointed towards a record of success. I think we have to be able to compete on substantive grounds with the governor and the Republicans going forward."
Democratic state committee delegate Charles Pray, of Millinocket, is the former president of the Maine Senate. He agrees that messaging continues to be a problem, but he says Democrats missed an opportunity by not taking the lead on welfare reform, leaving the door wide open to Gov. Paul LePage's crusade to end welfare abuse.
"I think Democrats have done a bad job of getting their message out as to what their real concerns are," Pray says. "Again, my understanding and from what I have seen, most of them are not in favor of any type of abuse of the system, but they become defenders of the system and not necessarily advocating that we need that inspection and evaluation of those programs. I think we need a better message out there that, 'Yes, these programs need to be looked at,' but we also need to do it (in a) fiscally responsible (way)."
While Bartlett has a long road ahead of him as he attempts to seek out candidates who can reclaim the legislative seats lost to Republicans, some election watchers say it would be wrong to overemphasize the new chair's progressive leanings. Michael Cuzzi, a Portland communications consultant and former campaign aide to President Barack Obama, says dictating the party's strategic goals probably won't be a big part of Bartlett's responsibilities.
"Ultimately, the party chair is there primarily as an instrument to raise money and make sure that the party has the resources it needs to compete in an election cycle," Cuzzi says, "so I wouldn't read too much into Phil's selection of chair from an ideological perspective."
"Cuzzi's correct in saying that there's operationally a lot of things that this person needs to do," says Matt Gagnon, the new CEO at the conservative think tank known as the Maine Heritage Policy Center. "When you're talking about leadership, you're talking about everything from where you look for the money, where you look for the issues, what kind of candidates you're approaching."
Gagnon says that, despite Bartlett's official duties, his liberal leanings - and that of other Democratic leaders - send a strong message to Maine voters.
"They're so far to the ideological left now that I don't think they are responsive to the needs of the 2nd District, particularly," Gagnon says, "and, as a result, I think that's problematic for their policy when they're in the State House, especially with the particular people they have driving policy in Augusta."
Also elected to Democratic leadership this weekend is Peggy Schaffer, who served as chief of staff four years ago to former Maine Senate President Libby Mitchell. The Vassalboro resident will assist Bartlett as the party's vice-chair.