Tuesday’s takeaway? Division isn’t doom for Maine Republicans

Tuesday was supposed to be a bad night for Maine Republicans. After all, the political news in Maine had, for months, been dominated by Republican Party infighting. Gov. Paul LePage had been sniping at legislators in both parties; the Legislature had, in turn, been investigating him for what they perceived as wrongdoing. All of this had its origins in the showdown over the budget earlier this session when LePage proposed an innovative, albeit imperfect tax plan that most Republicans summarily rejected, almost leading to a shutdown. Republicans faced attacks not only from liberal groups and their allies in media, but from fellow Republicans as well. The party, we were told, was in chaos.

Gov. Paul LePage and Senate President Michael Thibodeau at LePage's inauguration in January. The two Republicans have been at odds for much of the past year. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Gov. Paul LePage and Senate President Michael Thibodeau at LePage’s inauguration in January. The two Republicans have been at odds for much of the past year. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

All of this, it was predicted, would lead to electoral doom for Republicans. The first test would be Tuesday’s off-year elections. Though Maine doesn’t have major statewide offices up for election in odd-numbered years, there were a pair of special House elections, referendum issues, and a number of closely watched local races across the state.

In Portland, there were no Republicans running in the nonpartisan mayoral election, but incumbent mayor Michael Brennan made opposition to LePage a central part of his platform. His opponent and fellow Democrat, Ethan Strimling, emphasized cooperation and listening to city residents to get things done. One would think an anti-LePage message would carry the day in Portland, but instead it was Strimling’s message of inclusiveness that won, allowing him to oust the incumbent.

In Lewiston, controversial mayor Bob Macdonald found himself in a runoff against Democratic activist Ben Chin. Although progressives will attempt to claim this as a victory, in recent days many of them had hoped that the disgusting and unacceptable racist attacks on Chin would propel him to outright victory over MacDonald, an outspoken conservative who’s aligned himself with LePage. Here, too, we saw that it was not enough simply to be opposed to LePage. And that was not the campaign that Chin ran. Instead, he actually laid out a plan of his own for the city that many voters found appealing.

On the legislative front, there was extremely good news for the GOP. Republicans won both special elections to the Maine House, taking over Democratic seats in both cases. These victories came despite both seats being in more liberal southern Maine, and despite House Republicans standing more closely by LePage in the recent legislative session than their Senate counterparts.

We’ve seen all of this before, of course. After rebellious conservatives took over the 2010 Republican state convention and passed their own platform, there were many predictions of doom. Following that fiasco, the constant refrain among more established Republicans was that the new platform would doom GOP candidates across the state. That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, Republicans won both the House and Senate, and LePage was elected governor

None of this is to say that GOP infighting is irrelevant or that it has no impact on elections. It is most certainly relevant, and the Maine Republican Party ought to do everything it can to encourage unity. However, unity is not the be-all and end-all of winning races. Much of this fighting occurs long before the next general election, and when focus turns to the next campaign, voters may well have forgotten much of it.

The key is not necessarily to eliminate all public strife within a party, but to try to contain it and keep it from spilling over. In past years, Maine Republicans have been better at doing that than one might think. Whether they will be able to do so again in 2016, a higher-turnout presidential year, remains to be seen.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.