Town By Town: Lebanon
The launch of a new series, examining politics of individual Maine towns
Legislators: Rep. Jeffrey Sean Adams (R-Lebanon), first elected in 2022; Sen. Matthew Harrington (R-Sanford), first elected in 2022.
Maine, you may have heard, has a new millionaire.
Yes, millionaire, not billionaire - after taxes, whomever won the $1.3 billion Mega Millions jackpot on Friday will take home somewhere around $400 million, if they take the cash option, like most winners. The state, meanwhile, will be able to add in approximately $50 million to its budget picture for the coming biennium. While that seems like quite a nice sum, it would only cover about a fifth of the coast of the so-called ‘heating aid’ package passed by the Legislature.
The ticket was purchased in the town of Lebanon, Maine (pop 6,469). Now, of course we don’t know that the winner lives anywhere nearby or even in Maine - they could have been simply passing through.
If you haven’t heard of it before, you’re likely not alone. It’s in York County, perched right on the New Hampshire border. It’s most definitely in Southern Maine, but it’s not in the part of Southern Maine that most people consider when they use the term. It’s not on the coast, it’s not ritzy, and it’s farther away from Portland than where I live in Gardiner. In fact, it’s quite a bit closer to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The purchase of the lottery jackpot there provides the perfect occasion for the launch of a new series I’m calling, un-creatively, Town By Town, wherein I’ll examine the politics of individual towns all over Maine.
Now, my goal isn’t to cover every single of Maine’s four hundred plus municipalities - that’s a Sysyphian task, to be sure. Instead, I’ll take a look at towns as they happen to catch my interest, or if towns are of particular political import. Obviously I’ll get to the state’s large cities, like Portland, Bangor, and Lewiston eventually, but they’re less interesting to examine because they’re so thoroughly covered.
Lebanon is interesting precisely because it’s not the sort of place one imagines when one thinks of southern Maine, but in fact it’s not atypical of the region at all. Right off the bat, Lebanon seems different because it’s heavily Republican: LePage carried the town by more than twenty-five points last year even as Mills handily beat him to win re-election. That’s a pretty typical pattern of elections in Lebanon in recent years, as evidenced below:
We see here that, prior to LePage’s initial run for governor in 2010, the town was politically competitive, but since then has become more Republican. Lebanon is generally reflective of both statewide and national trends in some ways, while diverging in other ways. For instance, it was actually much closer in 2008 when John McCain was the nominee, closer even than the rest of the state, which Clinton won handily. Romney did better in 2012, then Trump got north of 60% in both 2016 and 2020. Even though Lebanon is in the First Congressional District, that’s reflective of the same trend that allowed Trump to win not only Maine’s Second Congressional District, but whole states where Romney came up short, like Michigan and Pennsylvania.
In 2010, unenrolled gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler made a strong showing here amidst the collapse of Democrat Libby Mitchell’s campaign, but then failed to repeat that performance in 2014 against Michaud. That reflects the trend statewide that Libby Mitchell never had a chance, while in 2014 Michaud was able to unite most Democrats behind him. Since then, Democrats have gradually done slightly better in Lebanon; although they’re nowhere near being competitive there, that too reflects a statewide trend.
While Paul LePage only dropped by less than two points from 2014 to 2022, non-party candidates weren’t a factor in Lebanon, just like they weren’t statewide. That is reflective of a decline in his performance statewide that was far worse in other towns, leading to him handily losing to Janet Mills by more than thirteen percentage points.
Judging by the voter registration numbers, though, Lebanon should be more competitive. Unenrolled voters make up almost 40% of the town, followed by Republicans at nearly 34%, with Democrats following with 22%. That says that the right Democrat - either a moderate national figure, or someone extremely well-known locally running for local office - could make headway in town. Those recent gains might not be simply a blip in the radar if Democrats play their cards right.
The open question here is whether Democrats will continue to make gains in Lebanon in 2024, or whether the Republican presidential nominee - whomever that may be - can beat them back and match the LePage-Trump numbers. If a future Republican nominee can match LePage-Trump numbers in towns like Lebanon in the Second District, they’ll continue to be able to snag that one electoral vote, which could make a difference in a tight contest. If they can improve on the LePage-Trump numbers, they may well have a chance to bring the whole state into play, relegating the Democrats to second-place finishers getting just one electoral vote.
Paul LePage once remarked that he was Donald Trump before Donald Trump, and the results in Lebanon show that - far from just being an offhand remark - that comment was based in real data. If you imagine the results in Lebanon being replicated, not just all over Maine, but all over America, it’s easy to see that there were plenty of people who voted for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump twice.
In Maine, many of those voters voted for Paul LePage at least twice, too, though perhaps not all three times.
The next Republican nominee, both for President in 2024 and for governor of Maine in 2026, will have to keep those voters in the fold and expand upon that coalition to have a chance at victory. If that sounds like a daunting task, that’s because it is, and that’s exactly why the Republican Party can’t waste any time with foolish infighting over the next four years: They’ve simply got too much work to do.
The GOP, nationally and here in Maine, can’t afford to take any days off.
You may follow Jim on Twitter or Facebook. He is also a weekly political columnist for the Portland Press Herald, Maine’s largest daily newspaper.