It doesn't make much sense, on the surface. In the 60 years since Maine made history by being the first state to send a woman to the United States Congress (Margaret Chase Smith, who replaced her dead husband in the House of Representatives, was re-elected four times, and went on to serve in the Senate), women have been regular, and stalwart, members of Maine's Washington delegation. Women have served in every appointed state-wide position; the state's supreme court chief justice is a woman. Maine's two legislative leaders, House Speaker Hannah Pingree and Senate President Libby Mitchell, are obviously both female. But despite all these political strides, the state's chief executive chair — and the only statewide elected office — has eluded women.
Now, Mitchell's gubernatorial candidacy provides us with a lens with which we can examine those facts. Why has the Blaine House remained inaccessible to women, even as we confidently elect them to represent us in Washington DC? Will Mitchell's gender affect her chances at becoming Maine's next governor? When it comes to state politics, is there still a "woman card" to be played, on the campaign trail or in the voting booth?
For her part, Mitchell denies that her gender has played a role in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. (She doesn't bring up, as other observers do, the one possibly glaring example of sexism and certainly of ageism, which came early in the campaign season: When 61-year-old Paul LePage suggested that Mitchell — who is 70, a year younger than John McCain was when he ran for president — was too old for the job.)
"It has not been an issue in the campaign, other than the clear fact that I am the only woman running, so it is impossible not to stand out on a stage with four men," Mitchell says in an e-mail to the Phoenix.
It might not be the pink elephant in the room, but that doesn't mean that gender hasn't colored the race, at least a little. "While it isn't something any of the candidates are talking about," she adds, "I am frequently approached by women of all ages who are excited by the possibility of the first female governor." Susan Collins, who ran in 1994 and lost to independent Angus King, is the only other woman to have received the gubernatorial nomination from a major party in Maine.
Mitchell's opponents also downplay the influence that gender wields in this contest (while Mitchell doesn't want to take votes for granted because she's a woman, neither do the other campaigns want to lose voters who might be attracted to historical significance).
"We certainly haven't seen, in this campaign, people flocking to Libby simply because she's a woman," says Ted O'Meara, campaign manager for independent candidate Eliot Cutler. "We have strong women throughout [the Cutler] campaign and they're supporting Eliot because they think he's the strongest candidate." He specifically points to the endorsements of Leila Percy, a Democratic state representative from Phippsburg, and Elizabeth Schneider, a Democratic state senator from Orono. In fact, O'Meara confesses that he's "surprised at the number of women — who would love nothing more than to see the first female governor — the number of those women who are not supporting Libby."