Can Maine's Democrats come back from the dead?

Or have they been Republicans for too long?
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  January 19, 2011

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Let's skip over several huge problems the Maine Democratic Party faces as it tries to recover from its historic losses in November, when for the first time since 1964 the Republicans took control of both houses of the Legislature and the governorship. With tea-party Paul LePage in the Blaine House, Maine hasn't had such a conservative government, historian Paul Mills says, since the early 1940s.

Let's mention in passing the big backfire from the Democratic Party's crude, nasty advertising against independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, who was in many ways more progressive/liberal than Democratic nominee Libby Mitchell. Partly as a result of that fiasco, Mitchell received only 19 percent of the vote. Democratic voters fled to Cutler, who wound up with 37 percent to LePage's 38 percent.

And let's put aside that State House Democrats have no rousing leaders, are intimidated by the Republican triumph, and are psychologically worn out and sore after eight years in bed with an unpopular governor, John Baldacci.

Maine's Democrats have a bigger problem: what their politicians have come to represent.

For years, Democrats in Augusta have followed the conservative Republican economic path even when they were in complete control of the government. This path in the end didn't lead to electoral success, and it didn't lead to prosperity for Mainers — only to a fiscal mess and reduced state services. Ironically, in choosing the Republicans, voters have now chosen an intensified conservatism. But that's an alternative — the only one presented to them.

"This is not the party that George Mitchell and Joe Brennan would have led," says Colby College government professor Sandy Maisel, of his fellow Democrats.

But it has been the party of John Baldacci.

To be sure, Maine's Democratic politicians have become conservative on economic issues partly because of national trends over decades: political campaigns became expensive, resulting in a dependence on rich people; unions declined; social issues became more important to the better-off, educated Democrats who led the party; and, as President Obama confessed recently to a group of liberal economists — reported by the National Journal — he hasn't been able to "change the narrative after 30 years" of Ronald Reagan-esque rhetoric and policies.

But the fact that Baldacci was a Republican on economics helped pull Maine Democrats far down the conservative path. He refused to raise taxes despite massive shortfalls between state-government revenues and expenditures. He continually reduced government services. And he cut taxes on business.

Even during the fall campaign, when Baldacci was a lame duck, Democratic candidates continued to quack like him — and like LePage. Libby Mitchell echoed LePage's line that the central mission of state government is to stimulate private-sector jobs, and that this should be done by cutting state spending and reducing income taxes for business and the affluent.

But now, with Republicans in power, Democrats who continue to follow the Republican path will be irrelevant to voters. Democrats could be relevant, though, if they presented a distinct alternative to the GOP, whose policies are likely to be as unsuccessful as Baldacci's. The only way Democrats can present an alternative is by going in the other direction: returning to their progressive roots.

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  Topics: News Features , Politics, Paul Mills, Sharon Treat,  More more >
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