Party Leaders: Democrats Need to Focus on Maine Voters' Concerns

Aug 11, 2017

Maine’s next general election is more than a year away, but state Democratic leaders are already strategizing a way to reverse recent back-to-back losses in several high-profile races.

One top party official and several candidates met Thursday evening with voters in East Orland for a free-range discussion on the party’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Democrats filing into the Craig Brook Fish Hatchery Auditorium in East Orland occupy a range of points on the party’s political spectrum. They’ve been invited by the Maine Common Good Coalition to assess the current status of the party.

Katie Mae Simpson, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party, doesn’t hold back.

“The Democratic Party brand is really damaged, I’m not going to pretend that it’s not,” she says.

According to a Washington Post report, during the last nine years, Democrats have lost 20 percent of the seats they once held in state legislatures, and nearly the same percent of the seats they held in the U.S. House of Representatives. They’ve lost a whopping 35 percent of all state governorships.

Here in Maine, the numbers are less dramatic but equally deflating for the party. Republican Gov. Paul LePage has rebuffed back-to-back challenges from the best candidates the party had to offer. The Maine House has downsized the number of majority Democrats it has claimed over the last two election cycles, while party leaders have seen its Democratic minority in the Maine Senate fall and rise.

“The crystal ball is broken,” Simpson says. “Trump’s victory shattered all crystal balls. No one knows what the hell is going to happen in 2018 — no one.”

One thing that Simpson knows is that the party is planning to stage a full-court press in Maine to try to win back the governor’s office and steal away a third term from 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin. To do that, Simpson says the party is off to an early start, hiring five organizers before Labor Day to start the ground game in motion.

Flanked by several Democratic candidates for state and federal office, Simpson urges them to sell themselves to voters, rather than attack their GOP opponents.

“We know that we need a reason to vote for us. What isn’t going to work is saying Trump’s terrible, even though we can preach to the choir about that, and Poliquin’s a mess. We’re not going to do that either,” she says.

“Maybe what we need to talk about is what the next step is to get us into a better future,” says Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who served in the Maine House as a progressive Democrat.

Dunlap says he agrees that the party should stick to positive messages about everyday issues that keep Mainers up at night.

“Maybe we should talk about things like broadband and a better transportation infrastructure and energy prices. When you talk about the challenges that Maine faces, those are always the big things,” Dunlap says.

“There’s only one message American voters have, and it’s the economy,” says Peter Templeton, a Blue Hill Democrat who attended the East Orland forum.

Templeton says Democratic candidates could advance if they appeal directly to the concerns of the voters — and he says it’s really not that complicated.

“The economy in Maine has never been good,” he says. “You either have to maintain the status quo in Maine or you have to make it better, and you can’t sit around and promise everybody high-paying jobs, because the mills have closed down and things have gotten slow.”

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, would be happy if Democratic candidates ignored Templeton’s advice. He says that when Democrats in the Legislature choose to emulate the party’s national leaders, such as U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, his job gets easier.

“What we see is Democrats, election cycle after election cycle, they’re trying to impose San Francisco values on the elections and on the people of Maine, and it’s not working,” he says.

Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, says Democrats might do well to stop questioning how they deliver their message and focus more on the message itself.

“I think that there’s a strong sense among a lot of Democrats that it’s not so much that we need to change as much as we need to get our message out better — whether or not that’s right is debatable,” Melcher said.

But Republican strategists, including Savage, say that the voters are getting the Democratic message loud and clear, and that’s been their problem.