Altered State: Democrats gain control of Legislature, Blaine House

With control in the Legislature and Janet Mills in the Blaine House, Maine Democrats shift their focus to implementing Medicaid expansion and executing a blue agenda.
Janet Mills poses for a photo
Led by the groundbreaking election of Janet Mills and Tuesday’s Statehouse sweep, Maine Democrats are now in control of both branches of state government. Photo by Sarah Rice.

AUGUSTA — While Democratic hopes for a massive blue wave didn’t materialize on a national scale on Tuesday, Mainers sent a strong blue ripple through the state by handing control of the Legislature and governor’s mansion to Democrats.

For the first time since 2010, Democrats will control both branches of government, something Gov. elect-Janet Mills addressed in comments to reporters outside Becky’s Diner in Portland on Wednesday morning.

“I expect it will be important in getting our agenda accomplished,” she said, noting that healthcare, the opioid crisis, renewable energy and climate change are all on that agenda.

She said those aren’t necessarily partisan issues and later emphasized her intent to make healthcare, specifically the expansion of Medicaid, an immediate priority.

“The money is there,” she said. “We’ve got to get healthcare done. It’s putting a damper on our economy. We are going to address that.”

We’ve got to get healthcare done. It’s putting a damper on our economy. We are going to address that.”

— Governor-elect Janet Mills

In addition to Mills’ win with 51 percent of the vote, preliminary results Wednesday showed Democrats likely controlling the Maine Senate by a 21-14 margin, with Sen. Troy Jackson from Allagash expected to be the frontrunner in the race for Senate president.

In the house, it appears the Democrats will claim at least 88 seats in the 151-seat chamber. Freeport’s Sara Gideon of Freeport will likely retain her role as Speaker of the House.

While greeting voters at polls in Freeport on Tuesday, Gideon said she was ready to work with a new governor after a difficult – and long – legislative session that featured frequent sparring between legislative leaders and outgoing Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican.

“No matter what the outcome is we are going to be in a better position and have the ability to press the reset button,” she said. “We especially need that after the last few years.”

For the last two election cycles, new governors have had the privilege of working with a House and Senate controlled by their own party for at least the first two years of their tenure. In fact, for all eight years of his time in office, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci worked with a Democratic House and Senate.

And while LePage’s first two years saw complete GOP control, both chambers flipped to Democrats for two years until Republicans took back the Senate in 2014.

Prior to Tuesday, Republicans had controlled the Maine Senate for the last four years and Democrats had been in charge of the House for six years.

Political science professor Mark Brewer said the strong Democratic showing was fueled by strong campaigns from Democratic candidates and a clear case of voter fatigue after eight years of the LePage governorship.

“I think there is a fair amount of LePage frustration but also fatigue anytime a candidate holds one office for eight years,” said Brewer, who teaches at the University of Maine at Orono.

While Republicans might be concerned about legislative overreach now that Democrats control both chambers in Augusta and the Blaine House, Brewer said the benefits of divided government aren’t as robust as they used to be.

“I think divided government worked better when party polarization wasn’t as high,” he said, adding that the “steel-cage-death-match” mentality prevalent in recent years makes compromise much harder.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who will leave his position in the Senate in December when newly elected lawmakers are sworn in, cautioned against trying to draw too many sweeping conclusions in the wake of the election. Mainers seem to like variety, particularly in their choices for governor, electing an independent, Democrat, Republican and now another Democrat since 1994, he said.

“Part of it is the natural ebb and flow in Maine,” said Katz, an attorney and former Augusta mayor. “The Blaine House hasn’t stayed in one party’s hands for long. I don’t think it’s any great surprise it’s shifted.”

From his perspective, Katz said factors such as outside money, particularly in support of Democrats, and the continuing divide between urban and rural Maine played a role in the outcome. And there’s LePage, whose bombastic style and record-setting veto pen challenged the patience of lawmakers in his own party as well as everyday voters.

(Democrats) could make legislative Republicans irrelevant. In 99 percent of cases, they are not going to have any worry about a gubernatorial veto. That kind of overreach would likely be punished at the polls in 2020.”

— Outgoing Republican Senator Roget Katz of Augusta

Just this week, LePage announced that he plans to move out of state when his term ends, in part to avoid paying income taxes in Maine.

“His comments in the last few days about moving to Florida and abandoning the state were very ill-timed and certainly didn’t do anything to help in close races,” Katz said.

Moving forward, Katz said he will be interested to see how Democrats use their new-found power. That starts at the top with Mills, a former House member and attorney general who will now be the most influential person at the Statehouse.

“It’s going to be really interesting to see how they play their hand here,” he said. “They could make legislative Republicans irrelevant. In 99 percent of cases, they are not going to have any worry about a gubernatorial veto. That kind of overreach would likely be punished at the polls in 2020.”

As he stood outside the Cony High School polling place on Tuesday, Sen.-elect Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, who will fill Katz’s seat, shook hands with several voters, calling many of them by name. He posed for a selfie with Rep. Donna Doore, D-Augusta, who told him she had just come from another polling place where his father was greeting voters.

“I think folks really want somebody that’s accessible,” said Pouliot, who served six years in the Maine House before running for the Senate. “I put my cellphone (number) on everything. People know when they call me I’ll dig into the issues. Folks appreciate that at this level before partisanship.”

Pouliot says he plans to run for a leadership position in the Senate, in part because he wants to help foster a more collaborative atmosphere at the Statehouse. He called the $18 million spent on the 2nd Congressional District race between Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, and Jared Golden, a Democrat, “disgusting.”

“We really have to get serious about focusing on issues and not bad-mouthing other people,” he said. “The danger of that is people will tune out and not participate at all.”

Pouliot, who defeated Democrat Kellie Julia 57 to 43 percent on Tuesday, said Democrats did a better job getting people to enroll and vote.

While it’s tempting to try to draw parallels between what’s happening nationally to Maine’s political landscape, Pouliot said races for the Legislature are local affairs.

“I really do think it’s tough to generalize outcomes in different areas where there’s a mix of voters,” he said. “A lot of it comes down to candidates.”

Regardless of his minority status in the Senate, Pouliot said he plans to work with Mills and Senate Democrats on a bill that he sponsored last year to help students and businesses pay off student loan debt in an effort to attract workers to Maine. It passed both chambers with bipartisan support, but the $60 million price tag for the tax credit couldn’t be funded by lawmakers at that time, he said.

Many voters leaving the polls Tuesday said they felt they were just doing their civic duty. One of them was Donald Daniel, 82, of Augusta, who also mentioned another motivating factor.

“Too bad Trump’s not running because I’d vote against him,” he said.

Daniel said he’s never followed a strict party line, supporting former Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe in previous elections and Mills, for governor, this year.

Another Augusta resident, Susan Giroux, 59, said she too votes for a person over party. She said she reads a lot about candidates in the run-up to an election and chooses “whoever I feel is going to do the best job to serve us.”

“I think it’s very important to get out and vote and not stay home and crab about it,” she said.

Down the road in Freeport, voters made their way into the Freeport High School gymnasium after being greeted by candidates and passing tables offering maple syrup, sandwiches and baked goods.

In the months before the election, Gideon said she traveled to about 70 of the state’s 151 House districts to help Democrats not only win but widen their majority in the chamber. As speaker, it’s her job to raise money and get out on the trail with candidates, she said.

As she surveyed the turnout on Tuesday, she said she sensed voters were motivated to show up because they believed they could bring about change.

“For the most part, people are coming out with a great feeling of optimism and empowerment,” she said.

Gideon said voters want them to focus on job growth and training, including improved educational opportunities, and access to healthcare, all of which are part of the Democratic agenda.

In other election news:

• Mike Michaud, yes THAT Mike Michaud, won election Tuesday to a three-year term on the East Millinocket Board of Selectmen. The former Democratic congressman, 2014 gubernatorial candidate, and Maine Senate president won the local seat with about 75 percent of the vote, according to the Bangor Daily News.

• Three Belfast city council candidates who oppose the Nordic Aquafarms salmon farm lost their bids for election on Tuesday. Two write-in candidates, Ellie Daniels and Jim Merkel, lost by big margins and Joanne Moesswilde, who was on the ballot, was defeated by incumbent Neal Harkness 52 percent to 48 percent, the BDN reported.


Susan Cover

Susan Cover has been a journalist for 24 years, working at newspapers in Kansas, Rhode Island, Ohio and Maine. In 2002, Susan moved to Maine to cover state government and spent 10 years in the Statehouse Bureau working for the Kennebec Journal. She covered state budgets, hundreds of bills, and referenda campaigns including bear baiting and marriage equality. In 2013, Susan was promoted to city editor at the Kennebec Journal, leading a team of reporters and photographers to put out each day’s paper. Susan is a graduate of Muskingum University in Ohio and has a master’s degree in newspaper journalism from Syracuse University. Most recently, Susan left daily newspaper journalism to pursue freelance writing and her other passion – taking run-down houses in Kennebec County and bringing them back to life. She lives in Augusta with her partner and their pets – Piper the cat and Wooley the dog.
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