One of the more painful results from last fall was the election of Paul LePage in Maine, if only for its familiarity - in 2008 I watched Gaye Symington's gubernatorial campaign collapse over the fall, splitting the left vote, and leaving Governor Jim Douglas with a clear path to another term. In Maine, State Sen. Libby Mitchell's campaign was undoubtedly poor, leaving room for an independent challenger to make inroads. While Eliot Cutler's support was decided moderate, as a third-party observer, it seemed pretty clear that voters were far more interested in liberal-moderate governance rather than a conservative executive, yet the vote-splitting allowed Governor Paul LePage to claim a plurality with only 38% of the vote. And in electing Gov. LePage, Maine wasn't receiving a run of the mill New England Republican - LePage came out of nowhere to win the Republican primary on the back of a surprisingly strong tea party showing, and even during the campaign, Gov. LePage's crass, non-apologetic, bullying style was on regular display.
If people weren't familiar with LePage last fall, they certainly are now - he has kept his rhetoric outrageous, followed in the footsteps of Walker & Co., and even spearheaded his attack on mural's at the Maine Department of Labor. Not only has he been ineffectual, but he's been a caricature of a governor.
So how, in a New England state like Maine, does a guy like LePage get elected? After sifting through the data, I've come to my conclusion - the Democratic brand in Maine is terribly weak. In a generic, state election, the LDI suggests that Maine Democrats only possess a 52-48 edge over Republicans.
I know what people are thinking - that margin just doesn't seem right. Yet if you dig back into history, while Maine has voted Democratic since 1992, it hasn't been my any astounding margin - Al Gore edged George Bush by 5% in 2000. Simply put, perceptions of Maine as being political similar to New England really ought to be aimed at similarities with New Hampshire, where there is still a strong Republican brand.
The other issue at play can also be found in the 2000 results - Had Ralph Nader not been in the race, Gore's margin perhaps could have doubled, as he was able to secure just shy of 6% of the vote. Maine's strong third party tradition may not be seen when you look at distribution of legislative seats, but it is unmistakable.
The Maine Green Independent party is the longest standing Green party in the United States, dating back to the early 80's, and they have found considerable success in Portland, where they have held a number of city council seats, and where the party's highest ranking elected official in the county, Rep. John Eder, served from 2002 until 2006.
This independent presence has been especially felt in gubernatorial elections. In 2010, independent candidates combined for over 40% of the vote - in 2006, over 30%. In fact, since 1982, only one gubernatorial candidate has received a majority of the vote, and that candidate was Independent governor Angus King. The result is a Democratic party that has routinely lacked strong performances at the top of the ticket, and instead depended on local candidates alone.
In neither the house, nor the Senate does the Republican party hold strong majorities, and with all seats up for election every two years, both chambers are free for the taking. Maine does not redistrict until 2013, so these numbers are especially relevant, as these are the exact seats they'll be contesting (and when I say exact, I mean it - the wonderful folks at the Maine SoS office have very detailed election results, allowing for me to use district-by-district data for every race). In both chambers, Democrats can swing majorities simply by winning back the seats that lean their direction - that said, because of Maine's term limits, holding currently held seats isn't as easy of a task as it might be in other states we have looked at, where Democrats will be looking to wrestle back control in 2012. Still, LePage has not given his party any help since taking office, and in 2012, I would bet on Republican control disappearing in a big way.
Lastly, I would draw attention to this chart below, which is the start of the real analysis I am excited to do with this project. What I've done above is plot out the compare the distribution of scores in the Democratic half of each state's Index.
One of the things I'm interested in watching is how well parties function based on how their legislators are distributed. I think it is a fair assumption that given the views of their state, the Maine Democratic Party is underperforming its colleagues in states like Ohio, and to a lesser degree, Wisconsin. That being said, they are obviously a lot stronger than a party in more serious trouble, like Nebraska. While Democratic parties in all states are going to compete in a wide range of districts, I have a suspicion that the straighter the above line is, the better a party would perform. It is not that a party can't represent a wide range of views - we have done this very successfully in Congress. But when there is a big separation between these constituencies, it becomes a lot easier for groups to question whether their views are being best served in Congress.
Ohio and Wisconsin both have fairly straight lines - to my knowledge, there is little in the way of third party politics in either state. In Maine however, there is a pretty steep drop-off from the Portland seats to the rest of the Dem-leaning territory. With this in mind, it seems pretty straightforward that Portland progressives might feel that their views are better represented by someone else, like the Green Independents, rather than a Democratic party that is going to have to push a different message for many of the races they campaign in. While I haven't officially published the Vermont data yet, in my past experience I saw a similar situation, and it was in those separated seats that the Progressive Party built its legislative caucus, centered in Burlington.