The Grand Old Party isn’t over, a red Androscoggin: What Tuesday taught us

Mainers, we’ve earned a respite from lawn signs and tacky commercials…for now. So what can we learn from Election Day 2015? And what does it tell us about 2016?

Rumors of the Republican Party’s demise are greatly exaggerated. For the past year, people have predicted strife between Gov. Paul LePage and legislative Republicans would cause the party to crater. Yet in the two legislative special elections, GOP candidates won. It helped that both candidates had come close to winning in 2014 and decided to run again.

Nevertheless, special elections have historically been a strong suit for Maine Democrats. These races were their first losses in six years. It is too simple to claim that Paul LePage is mean, and therefore Republicans will lose — voters proved they are not that simplistic. The Grand Old Party isn’t over yet.

Voters passed a law increasing taxpayer funding, but the Legislature may not follow suit. The Question 1 supporters drafted a law that intentionally left the funding source ambiguous. That lack of clarity made it difficult for opponents to coalesce against a specific provision. However, since the ambiguity requires legislative action, they may have passed a law that will not be funded.

I have not broken out vote tallies by House or Senate district, but it appears Question 1 ran up the score in areas primarily represented by Democrats, especially in cities with competitive local races. It lost in the more rural — and Republican — areas. There is a very real possibility that the Legislature will refuse to enact the tax changes contained in Question 1, and the only remedy for supporters is the ballot box. The fact is you cannot force a Legislature to do much of anything, unless you put it in the Constitution.

So, if most districts represented by Republicans voted against the law, legislators can refuse to pass the tax changes or vote to sustain Gov. LePage’s likely veto without consequence. Their vote would align with their district, limiting the likelihood of punishment at the ballot box in 2016. It should be interesting to watch.

Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin addresses supporters Tuesday night. Chin hoped to unseat incumbent Mayor Robert Macdonald. Instead, the two will face each other in a runoff next month. Photo by Amber Waterman for the BDN.

Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin addresses supporters Tuesday night. Chin hoped to unseat incumbent Mayor Robert Macdonald. Instead, the two will face each other in a runoff next month. Photo by Amber Waterman for the BDN.

The Androscoggin runs red. Democrats are crowing about Ben Chin’s plurality in the Lewiston mayoral — fair to do so, as it was a good showing. Yet, since Lewiston requires a run-off, the good feelings may be short-lived. Mayor Bob Macdonald and two other center-right candidates together garnered 54 percent of the vote, making the incumbent mayor the second-round favorite. While Lewiston has long been a Democratic stronghold, it appears voters there are not yet ready to abandon a conservative mayor in favor of a progressive political activist.

Across the river, Auburn voters returned Jonathan LaBonte to office. A challenger backed by labor unions was easily dispatched despite LaBonte’s service in the LePage administration. The professional left has tried to hang the millstone of service under Gov. LePage on everyone to try and discredit them; it was directed against me just weeks after I returned home from Afghanistan last year. LaBonte’s victory shows that voters don’t read from the same script.

“We” beat “Us” in Portland. The three mayoral candidates in Portland were left, left, and really left. One ran on a “Portland versus Paul LePage” platform. Another ran on a near-Marxist “class struggle” manifesto. And the third, supported by Republicans, Democrats, businesses, unions, and countless other groups, ran on a “Together” ticket. Meanwhile, supporters of the two referenda advanced “workers versus business” and “people versus development” arguments.

Portland voters chose the “Together” candidate and rejected the “us versus them” narrative of the ballot questions and other candidates. They recognized most businesses are led by good people who want to do right by their employees, development is necessary to create new housing and spaces for businesses to grow, and suing everyone is not governance. Rather than accept artificial divisions, Tuesday was a victory for “We.” It bodes well for a more level-headed, solution-focused Portland.

2016? So, what can these results teach us about the next major election, 12 short months away?

The first answer is dollars alone do not carry the day, although they help. Ben Chin spent nearly $18 per vote; his three center-right opponents spent $2.40 per vote on average. Question 1 supporters spent $11 per vote, while opponents spent around 30 cents. A well-organized campaign with moderate resources can run with or defeat a better-resourced campaign. Of course, that lesson isn’t new; you could also learn it in business, military, and athletic settings.

The second answer is: this election can’t teach us much else. With a presidential race, state legislative seats, and nearly a dozen referenda expected on the ballot, 2016 will be very different. The silver lining is we are free from road signs. For now.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.