How to Make Sense of Maine's Primary Election Results
The big surprise from last night's gubernatorial primary was definitely the overwhelming victory on the Republican side by Tea Party favorite Paul LePage. LePage winning isn't shocking — he has long been considered one of the top four candidates — but the margin he won by must bring with it a new examination of the power of the right wing within the Maine GOP electorate, a group previously notable for their moderation.
It also shows exactly what it takes to win a gubernatorial primary in Maine. The top Republican candidates provide an interesting case study in the effectiveness of various campaign dynamics. Otten had the money, Abbott had the connections and support of the party infrastructure. Mills had high starting name recognition and a history in politics, but it was LePage, with his grassroots support, who won the day.
Libby Mitchell, on the Democratic side, won in a very different way. Yes Rowe may have had a few more volunteers and legislative endorsements and McGowan and Scarcelli had as much or more money, but Mitchell had a campaign that was strong in all these areas. She ran a full-spectrum campaign that allowed her to ride her starting advantage in name recognition all the way to victory at the ballot.
LePage and Mitchell won very different contests with very different messages. The GOP race was at times a bruising affair, with attack ads, online rumors, and sometimes sharp debates. He won by harnessing an undercurrent of anger and frustration with promises of deep cuts and wholesale reform. The Democratic race was far more genteel (and boring). Mitchell won on much more positive themes: effectiveness, bipartisanship, and a groundbreaking candidacy, both for her gender and her decision to run clean.
The last two successful Independent governors in Maine won by marginalizing weak Republican candidates and taking a big chunk of their traditional voters, and Paul LePage may offer Eliot Cutler a similar opportunity. There are already signs that LePage's Tea Party message may be fracturing the GOP. Moderate Republican Peter Mills had scant praise for LePage during his concession and performed a bit of a social media snub today when he announced that he is now "following" Cutler on Twitter. More importantly, LePage has been a poor fundraiser so far and certainly won't be able to match Cutler's millions (unless, of course, he can find a way to tap into the money behind the national Tea Party movement, but that brings with it its own problems of message and perception).
Mitchell is in a much better position. With her Clean Election funds she doesn't have to focus on fundraising, and with no Green opponent her left flank is safe from attack. She will, however, have to weather what will likely be a long series of attacks on her service in Augusta, perhaps bankrolled by the Republican Governors Association, which has been tracking and probing the Democratic candidates for weakness for months.
The messages of the general election campaign will be complicated, but in broad strokes, both Mitchell and LePage must straddle two different messages. LePage must swing to the center and capture the moderate votes he needs to win while at the same time keeping his activist base. Mitchell must maintain her positive, hopeful message while at the same time highlighting LePage's far-right pedigree.
Both the major party candidates will also have to work to show that only they, and not an Independent, are capable of either bringing about a conservative revolution in Augusta or stopping one.
Cutler has to paint them both as out of touch with the moderate middle, while at the same time marginalizing the two other independents, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott. This may prove difficult if Moody, heretofore an unknown quantity, decides to get serious about the race. One sign of his intentions may be the $98,000 he recently reported spending on "media."
It's going to be an interesting race.