Partisan division doesn’t just belong to Republicans

Division among Republicans has captured more headlines, but the tug-of-war between liberal and moderate Democrats was on full display in last week’s legislative primaries. And the more liberal wing of the Maine Democratic Party proved dominant, as it did earlier this year when Bernie Sanders easily bested Hillary Clinton in the state’s presidential caucuses.

During the administration of former Gov. John Baldacci, liberal Democrats were largely held in check from above. Baldacci knew he had to appeal to swing voters all across the state in order to be elected governor. It’s no coincidence that under Baldacci, many liberals sought refuge in the Green Independent Party. Indeed, Greens and Republicans worked together (albeit for very different reasons) to undo one of Baldacci’s major initiatives, his plan to expand the sales tax and reduce the income tax.

Since the election of Paul LePage as governor, however, Maine Democrats have become more liberal in response. They elected Mark Eves as speaker of the House in 2012. Eves, serving in just his second term, was able to best Terry Hayes, who had been in leadership in the previous session. He joined Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland in leadership, meaning that both chambers were led by liberals from southern Maine.

The left-wing dominance continued last week.

Shenna Bellows in 2014. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Shenna Bellows in 2014. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

In Kennebec County, longtime lobbyist Shenna Bellows, perhaps best known for her highly partisan, fact-challenged, quixotic campaign against Sen. Susan Collins in 2014, easily bested her primary opponent. As a candidate for U.S. Senate, Bellows wholeheartedly embraced the far left’s agenda, including criticizing Bath Iron Works, one of the state’s largest employers.

In southern Maine, longtime legislator Barry Hobbins — who, to his credit, has worked effectively with LePage on a number of issues — lost his Saco-area state Senate primary to Rep. Justin Chenette, a relative newcomer to politics who emphasized his opposition to LePage during the campaign.

The divide among Republicans was on display on Tuesday as well, of course. In Sagadahoc County, conservative insurgent Guy Lebida defeated incumbent Linda Baker, a first-term senator who’d shown a willingness to work across the aisle to get things done.

Unfortunately, voters in both parties rejected that cooperative spirit last week. The question in coming years will be how they convince moderates that they actually are more interested in getting things done than merely advancing their own partisan agenda.

This will be especially crucial for Democrats heading into the 2018 gubernatorial race, as they seek to retake the Blaine House. Despite their dominance in presidential elections in Maine as of late, Democrats have struggled to win other statewide elections. They may be hoping that passing ranked-choice voting will help them, but if liberals continue to win primaries, that might instead catapult a moderate independent into the governorship.

The two parties may also face increased competition if Libertarians are successful in gaining ballot access. Unlike the Green Party, Libertarians might offer a home to disaffected moderates who believe their voices are being ignored. If they get on the ballot and play their cards right, Libertarians could become a factor in Maine, where voters have shown a willingness to be flexible.

If you thought the past few years have been tumultuous in Maine politics, get ready. That might have been just the beginning.

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.