Much of What You Know About Maine Politics is Wrong

Republican District 19 candidate Paula Benoit hanging out with Governor LePage’s dog, Baxter. – Amber Waterman | Sun Journal

There seems to be some fundamental misunderstandings in the Maine media about public opinion of Governor Paul LePage and how it affects elections.

In an article previewing the recent special election in Senate District 19, Chris Cousins here at the Bangor Daily News wrote “A win by the lesser-known Vitelli would preserve the Democrats’ power base in the Senate and reaffirm the effectiveness of continuing their 2012 campaign strategy that linked Republican legislative candidates to LePage, specifically his controversial public statements.”

Steve Mistler at the Portland Press Herald put it similarly, writing that “Linking any and all Republicans to LePage is a big reason Democrats won back the Legislature in 2012.”

They’re right that a Democratic strategy of the Senate District 19 special election was to link Republican Paula Benoit to Governor Paul LePage, but they’re wrong that this a continuation of 2012.

Take a look at this voluminous collection of mail received by a swing voter household in a hotly contested State Senate district 2012. You won’t find a single mention of Governor LePage. In 2012, a presidential election year, turnout was guaranteed to be high and so the campaigns focused on things that were likely to influence persuadable voters. For the Democrats, this meant highlighting a series of votes taken by Republican incumbents on issues like health care, education and tax cuts for the wealthy. Legislative races in 2012 were actually some of the most issue-focused campaigns I’ve ever seen. The media talked about LePage, but the campaigns didn’t.

This special election was a different kettle of fish entirely. With less than half the turnout of a general election and a very small window of time to run a campaign, the name of the game was turnout – motivating the base to actually make it to the polls. That’s where the LePage factor came into play.

LePage is a polarizing figure. He motivates conservatives as well as progressives, and both sides used messages about him to get out their base in this race. In addition, Democratic candidate Eloise Vitelli faced a name recognition gap against former Republican Senator Paula Benoit. Without recent votes to define Benoit, her connections with LePage served as a kind of shorthand to tell voters where each candidate stood politically.

This messaging, combined with a candidate who worked hard, lots of help from the Democratic Party and other allies and a solid voter identification and turnout plan run by interim Senate Caucus Director Marc Malon is what won a hard-fought, uphill battle for Vitelli. The messaging was a change from 2012 and Democrats should be recognized for displaying the flexibility needed to win very different kinds of races.

The results of this election also shouldn’t necessarily be taken as an indication of any kind of shift in opinion on LePage. Despite what you might read in the paper, and some anecdotal reports, overall support for the Governor remains virtually unchanged since he took office. According to MPRC data, LePage had a 41% approval rating in May of 2011 and a 38% rating two years later, a change within the margin of error between the two polls. Among independents, his approval rating at both points was 39%.

This week’s Public Policy Polling survey also seems to indicate that even LePage’s latest controversial statements haven’t changed this dynamic. The results show his share of the vote virtually unchanged since their last poll in January and his approval rating holding steady at 39%.

LePage’s comments certainly haven’t grown his coalition, but they also haven’t eaten away at his support. In fact, what some may see as bad press is likely seen as attacks by biased media and a badge of honor by many of his fervent supporters. This effect might also help to explain why, unlike some Tea Party candidates, LePage doesn’t seem to have lost much support from grassroots conservatives, despite now being a part of government and the political establishment.

This doesn’t mean that opinions about LePage haven’t shifted in a way that’s not easily detectable in these numbers. For instance, LePage’s comments may have increased the polarization and intensity of opinion of parts of the electorate without changing the overall ratings. His policies and comments may have prompted conservatives or progressives or both to have stronger feelings about him than they did before. This might help to explain why the turnout in this special election was a third higher than two similar races in 2012 in which similar base messages were used.

A final note: following the determination of the SD 19 race on Tuesday, Republicans have accused Democrats of going negative for using messages tying Paula Benoit to Governor LePage. I’m glad we can now all agree that supporting LePage should be considered a negative.

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike writes about Maine politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center, writes a political column for the Portland Press Herald