As “red wave” fails to materialize nationally, Janet Mills wins re-election as Maine’s governor

Voters reward bipartisanship and effective governance, one political science professor says. Other analysts contrasted the governor’s steady leadership with LePage’s controversial tenure.
Janet Mills speaks at a campaign event
Gov. Janet Mills gives a speech during a campaign event centered around abortion rights. Photo by Caitlin Andrews.

Despite the drag of an unpopular president and stubborn inflation, Maine Governor Janet Mills won re-election  with a campaign that contrasted her competence with her opponent’s disruptive track record.

Political analysts pointed to Mills’ calm leadership in a time of hot partisanship throughout the nation. Steady, not flashy, is a style that works in Maine, they said.

“We live in a very partisan age, but maybe, when it’s all said and done, competence still matters,” said Daniel M. Shea, a professor of government at Colby College.

Mills beat a candidate who once styled himself as a proto-Trump, former Gov. Paul LePage, who sought to temper his divisive image this year as he attempted to return to office. He sought a third, non-successive term, having served from 2011-2019.

Mills rallied her voters by saying, as she tweeted on Tuesday, that “We cannot, we will not, go back.”

Like other governors around the country, Mills oversaw her state’s response to the deadly COVID epidemic. Maine has a relatively low per-capita COVID case count among states. An estimated 2,679 people have died of the virus.

This year, with the state budget swelled by federal funds, Mills and the Democratic legislature passed a $850 refund to most Mainers and provided free community college tuition. She also cast herself as a protector of abortion rights in Maine, in the wake of the US Supreme Court Dobbs decision that eliminated the constitutional right to abortion.

LePage, by contrast, focused on the economy and the cost of living, and zeroed in especially on the cost on heating oil. In a speech to supporters Tuesday night, he called Mills an “elitist” and did not concede to Mills.

In all, voters were choosing governors in 36 states on Tuesday, including Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New York. Democrats won closely watched gubernatorial contests in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New York as of early Wednesday morning. Republican candidates won in Georgia, Florida, and Arkansas races for governor.

Here’s what political scientists had to say about Mills’ victory:

Sandy Maisel, Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government (emeritus), Colby College:

“I think that people in Maine are tired of confrontational politics.  Mills emphasized her human side and her connections with people, including Republicans.  Few believed that there was a new Paul LePage, thinking rather that the negative ads run on his behalf meant that a third LePage administration would be as divisive as the first two.

For that reason, the election was not a referendum on Mills so much as a choice between two very different styles.

And, one should note, that Maine has not turned out a statewide incumbent since Bill Hathaway. Only two governors seeking re-election since the age of television—Bertrand Cross (to Ed Muskie in 1954) and John Reed (to Ken Curtis in 1966) — have not won re-election.”

Emily Baer, assistant professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire:

“A Mills win in a cycle that is undoubtedly favorable to Republicans reflects the stability of Maine’s political culture — a culture rooted in candidates with strong local ties, moderate policy stances and leadership style. Mills may not be the most exciting candidate to activists (or the national media), but she reflects Mainers.

Mills campaigned as a lifelong Mainer, emphasizing pocketbook issues like the economy, and access to health care and education, as well as bipartisanship and effective governance. This is especially appealing right now to moderates disaffected by the current political climate.

In many ways, Mills’ win reflects the same dynamics that propelled Senator Susan Collins to a third term in 2020 despite a seemingly-close race against Sara Gideon. Gubernatorial and senate races in other states are a microcosm of national politics this year, but Mills’ win suggests that Maine remains unique.”

 Amy Fried, the John Mitchell Nickerson Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine:

“She’s seen positively by voters and viewed as having done a good job with managing the pandemic and working with the Legislature. Inflation is an issue in Maine but it’s likely voters don’t blame state officials for it. The abortion issue will play a role as well. Maine is a strongly pro-choice state.

Moreover, Mills came in with the unusual-for-Maine situation of having won a majority in her first gubernatorial race and Maine has a very strong tendency to re-elect governors. Finally, her opponent Paul LePage never won a majority of the vote and tended to have low approvals. …voters exhausted by the last 6 years picked a calmer pragmatist who has built coalitions.”

Mark D. Brewer, Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine:

“Mills won because she was able to convince voters that she had done a pretty good job as governor. She reminded voters of her competent stewardship through COVID, the state’s solid financial footing, and her overall steady, calming, no-drama performance. Maine’s strong support of abortion rights and the $850 stimulus checks Mills sent to most Mainers didn’t hurt either.”

Daniel M. Shea, Professor of Government, Colby College

“We live in a very partisan age, but maybe, when it’s all said and done, competence still matters. Sure, many think she made some mistakes, but my guess is that most voter(s) think Janet’s sailed the ship rather well through some pretty turbulent waters. She’d get high marks during the pandemic, and the state’s budget seems rather solid.  For most Mainers, she’s been a competent leader. And we really like steady, smart politicians.”

Update: This story was updated to include remarks from Paul LePage Tuesday night.


David Dahl

Veteran journalist David Dahl serves as the editor of The Maine Monitor, overseeing its daily operations. David was most recently a deputy managing editor at the Boston Globe. Before joining the Globe, David worked for 20 years at the St. Petersburg Times. He was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University and a fellow at the Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at Columbia University. He has also been an adjunct professor of journalism at Emerson College, Boston College and Boston University. David and his wife, Kathy, enjoy tennis and kayaking at their home in Friendship. They have two adult children.
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