The Push for 76
A roadmap for House Republicans to regain the majority
Maine Republicans were highly - perhaps unrealistically, as it turned out - optimistic that they might be able to flip one or both chambers of the Maine Legislature, and in speaking to various sources, they seemed more optimistic about the House than the Senate. Based on my personal analysis and everything I’d heard from people in both parties, I was cautiously optimistic that the GOP would at least gain seats in both chambers heading into Election Day.
I’ve already recapped those disappointing results overall; the purpose of this article is to show you how Republicans, under new management, might reverse those numbers and retake the Legislature in 2024, starting with the House.
You can see below what this year looks like, with the seats arranged by the percentage margin for winning candidates, with Republicans on the right in red and Democrats on the left in blue; the unenrolled candidates are in tan.
So, the simplest strategy would be for Republicans to just pour all of their resources into flipping those nine seats, right? Well, no, not at all. For one, that strategy is readily obvious to even casual observers of the Legislature, so Democrats will know it’s coming. If they followed their lead, and both parties simply focused on those nine districts to the exclusions of everything else, they’d risk losing the House due to a fluke upset somewhere else.
For the Democrats, that would be an incredibly idiotic strategy, because they have vulnerable members beyond just those nine - and even without any help from House leadership or the state party, a Republican might pull off the upset simply by working hard on their own. For the GOP, the same is true: A Democrat could end up flipping one of their own seats.
For a different look at the layout of the House, see the below pictograph, organized into categories of seats. The candidates who won by the least overall margin are grouped towards the middle of the graph, and within each category, towards the bottom.
Note: Both districts 54 and 47 featured unenrolled candidates, so the winner won with a plurality, hence their placement and unique coloring.
Instead, both parties have to expand the playing field, and not just in obvious ways. In other words, if Republicans decide they have to be more competitive in four times as many seats, they can’t simply focus all of their time and resources on the thirty-six most vulnerable Democratic seats, either.
Take, for instance, House District One, in the middle top of the Republican block. First-time candidate Austin Theriault won this seat easily, with 69% of the vote. However, it was a pick-up, and could be competitive again the next cycle; it can hardly be considered a safe seat.
It was a prime target for the GOP because, even though it’s a Republican seat, it’s been held off and on for decades in various forms by former Democratic Speaker of the House John Martin. Yes, Maine has term limits, and Republicans managed to defeat Martin in 2012, but Maine’s term limits only apply consecutively, not lifetime, so Martin has been able to stay in office by switching back and forth between the House and the Senate. In the Tea Party wave election of 2010 that saw Republicans take the U.S. House, the U.S. House, and the Maine Legislature, with Republican Paul LePage winning the governorship, John Martin ran unopposed for re-election.
Two years later, even as they lost their overall majority in both the Maine Senate and the Maine House, Republicans decided to target John Martin, and they beat him for re-election. That was all well and good, especially in an otherwise difficult year, but he just came back and won again in 2014 - which is why the seat was open this time. It’s certainly easy to see John Martin coming back from retirement and making another run for the Maine House in this district in 2024. If he did, he’d make the seat competitive, regardless of the national or state political environment.
So, Republicans need to identify similar targets of opportunity all over the map. There doesn’t need to necessarily be an overall strategy to it based on the usual factors, like politics of the district, demographics, or where it is geographically in the state. Instead, they ought to consider other factors.
The first, and most obvious, is open seats. With the personal nature of local politics, the simple fact of a seat becoming open can make a previously safe seat highly competitive. It’s completely counter-intuitive in today’s polarized political environment, but the individual candidate still matters in legislative races, and can often prevail even in districts that should be safe for the other party. In 2024, those Maine House Democrats who are term-limited were first elected in 2016, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton and Republicans took full control of the U.S. Congress, so they should represent appealing targets for the GOP. They may have been able to win that year, but if their districts are ever in play, they ought to be in two years - especially if Donald Trump isn’t the Republican nominee.
The next category, one we’ll call sleepers (a concept I’ve mentioned before), is incumbents running for their fourth and final team, especially those who aren’t particularly well-known and/or represent a swing district or a seat leaning towards another party. Incumbents like this, first elected in 2018 when Democrats retook control of Congress nationally, sometimes end up getting lazy, and the state party and allied groups assume they can take care of themselves. Back in 2010, when Republicans retook the Maine House, they did a good job of going after these seats. One particular example was in District 52, which at the time was the towns of Chelsea, Washington, Jefferson, Somerville, and Whitefield. Despite representing the district for six years, and serving on the all-powerful Appropriations Committee, incumbent Democrat Lisa Miller lost handily to first-time candidate Deb Sanderson by a margin of nearly ten points; it wasn’t even particularly close. This is perhaps the single most under-rated category of seats in Maine politics, thanks to our term limits system, but they often end up being the most important in wave elections.
Another type of seats, the vulnerable freshmen, are candidates elected for their very first term in office. While many of these candidates will be natural targets for both parties, it’s unavoidable. Sometimes, even if they seemingly won by a relatively healthy margin, a simple change in the national and local political environment might be almost enough for even the very same person who lost last time to win the next time. They won’t just need a change in the political winds, however: they’ll also need as good or better support from the state party and legislative leadership than they got last time. In order to convince these candidates to run again, leadership will need to not only argue to them that things might be different this time, but prove to them how they will be different. To outside observers and the general public, it might seem like this candidate just did a better job or got luckier the second time around, but insiders will know that it was the behind-the-scenes changes in tactics, approach, and support that made the real difference. Sometimes, a truly superb candidate can overcome lousy leadership from their own party, especially if the other party isn’t paying attention - but that’s not going to happen in a heavily targeted race.
Finally, Republicans need to look at the districts where they should have been competitive but lacked a good candidate; we’ll call these the stealth seats. The trick is to differentiate between these stealth districts and the vulnerable freshmen, where the same candidate should be talked into running again. Sometimes, on paper, two of these candidates will look exactly alike: the party spent a lot of money in the district, they had healthy support from the establishment, and the district itself was competitive. In these candidates, it’s the candidate themselves who fell short: they were too ideologically extreme, they didn’t work hard enough, they were just a lousy campaigner, some local issue sunk their campaign, or they faced personal controversy that derailed them.
Sometimes, it’s all of these issues and more.
In a true wave election, one party or the other will win most of the seats in each of these categories, giving themselves not just a majority, but a hefty one. It’s pretty obvious that Republicans didn’t do that this cycle in the Maine House, but Democrats didn’t really, either. Democrats could have gone farther into the category of seats that Republicans won by less than 55% of the vote; if they had, they’d have gotten pretty close to a two-thirds majority in the Maine House. That would mean they could completely ignore the Republicans in the Legislature and pass any progressive agenda they wished.
On the flip side, Republicans obviously came up short of their goal of capturing the majority, and the graphic makes it easy to see why: They barely managed to match the Democrats in winning seats with less than 55% of the vote, hardly a recipe for winning the majority. Indeed, rather than over-performing Republicans nationally, as they did Paul LePage statewide, they underperformed them, winning only 46.68% of the statewide popular vote in competitive districts while Republican US House candidates won 50.7% of the popular vote nationwide. (That number may fluctuate slightly when the uncontested seats are counted in, but if anything it will only make things look worse for the GOP.)
That shows that, while there were ticket-splitters in Maine - that is, people who voted for Janet Mills for re-election while voting for local Republican candidates for the Legislature - there weren’t nearly enough of them. To get the majority in a Democratic-leaning, but unpredictable, state like Maine, Republicans need to do much better than the party does statewide. As Congressional Republicans did nationwide, they need to capture a majority of the statewide popular vote, cresting above that crucial fifty percent marker. Maine has a bipartisan, well-constructed redistricting process, so it’s not gerrymandered in favor of either political party. Either party can certainly punch above their weight in terms of the popular votes versus seats won, as Democrats did this year, but when they do it’s not simply due to the district lines, nor is it usually vastly disproportional. Republicans need to do the same to win the majority.
To do that, they need to not only completely rethink their approach at the state level, they should probably be hoping and praying nightly that Donald Trump is not the Republican presidential nominee in 2024 - because in 2020 he barely got a higher percentage of the vote than Paul LePage did this year, and he’s unlikely to repeat that performance. Statewide candidates can certainly be a drag on local legislative candidates; even when the latter outperforms the former, they might have done even better with someone else at the top of the ticket.
They also need a change of leadership at the state party. The current Maine Republican Party leadership has settled into a pattern of predictable ineptitude, and it’s long past time for a radical overhaul in their operations. They’re content just doing the same old thing and getting the same, old, disappointing results year after year, as long as they are able to maintain their own jobs - whether paid or perfunctory. That’s not only bad for Republicans in Maine, it’s bad for the health of the state’s democracy, as it leaves us with only one functional major political party - and that’s only by default.
Jim is also a weekly columnist for the Portland Press Herald, Maine’s largest daily newspaper. Follow him on Twitter, or on Facebook.