Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Republicans have a new best hope
Saturday, October 08, 2005 - Bangor Daily News

The Republican Party lost one of its most promising candidates this week, a political gulp that sat better with some than others. Peter Cianchette excused himself from the gubernatorial primary and perhaps said farewell to a political career. This departure, however, should not comfort Democrats.

The exit seemed mysterious. Cianchette was the popular Republican choice; he had plenty of time since a close loss to John Baldacci in 2002 to think about the race; he knew what campaigning required. But rather than waiting until 2010, as he may have preferred, when the governor's seat would be vacant, his strong showing in recent polls and even stronger party obligations demanded he get in the race. He did so reluctantly, I think, and saw a primary that looked like a long hard slog. His reason for dropping out was likely as he said. "I know that I only have one opportunity to be there with my children during some of the most important years of their young lives," he wrote to supporters.

One opportunity with your kids; usually two chances without a win in statewide politics before you're in the way. This race, unfortunately, was his second.

Cianchette is a moderate Republican in a state that likes moderates, but he wasn't the only one in the race, nor the most dangerous to Baldacci's re-election bid.

That would be state Sen. Peter Mills, who has long legislative experience, an intrepid sense of the possible and a great delivery from the podium. He is also hard to categorize as a Republican. Pro-choice, a supporter of gay rights and a fiscal conservative who stresses accountability, he offers the unusual combination of both believing in government as a positive force and being willing to put (limited) tax dollars behind it, even when his fellow party members would rather let Democrats wander that path alone.

This is perennially true of, for instance, tax reform, which Democrats want to enact but know what will happen if they do. Were they, for instance, to lower the sales tax but expand it to currently untaxed goods, Republicans would pound them on the expansion part and win legislative seats on that argument. You may not have noticed, but the politician least enthusiastic about tax reform this year is Baldacci.

Mills doesn't seem to care. Last legislative session, when he knew he wanted to run for governor, he tried to add a penny to the sales tax, temporarily, rather than have the state borrow more money - he lost that fight, but not by much. Mills has been similarly and sometimes unpopularly outspoken on education, workers' comp, state debt, a wide range of issues where for years his smart, plainspoken ideas have bedeviled both parties. A gaffe in politics, it is often said, is when someone speaks the truth. Mills is a gaffe machine.

The other day he was talking about how inadequate it was to merely cut taxes. "The federal government did that without cutting spending and look what it got us," he said. "You have to limit spending first and that's hard. Most people don't understand you can't snap your fingers and have that happen, but I do."

He wants to bring in MBAs to run social-service programs in Maine and demand those programs do more than provide services. "Don't tell me how many people you're serving," he says. "Tell me how many you've moved to a more successful stage of life."

What could this kind of thinking mean for 2006? Contrast. Where Baldacci is a careful politician, Mills is freewheeling, someone who grabs hold of ideas, shakes them, drops the failures and keeps moving.

This does not always make for successful policy, but it brings life to debates that would otherwise die for lack of imagination. (He is also a wonk: In introducing himself as a candidate, Mills offered a 12-point plan that included jettisoning the state pension and giving state workers and teachers portable plans "with Social Security at its base supplemented by defined benefits. This will avoid the Government Pension Offset and the Windfall Elimination Provision ..." Pop that onto a bumper sticker.)

Mills will bother a lot of conservative Republicans because he isn't one in the usual sense, but he could attract another group: the unenrolled, who do not care about party platforms, whether Democrats or Republicans control the Legislature or the embrace of a particular interest group. They care whether Maine is moving in the right direction, a judgment that deals less in accuracy than perception. Maine has more unenrolled voters than either Republicans or Democrats, and Mills is a persuasive creator of perceptions.

Baldacci's poll numbers are bad, with low approval ratings for an incumbent and high negatives. The numbers will improve over the next several months because he is a strong campaigner with real accomplishments, but many more votes are available to his challenger this time than in 2002.

A conservative Republican would not get those votes - the voters would stay home first - but an engaging and energetic moderate would.

And that provides Republicans with an old question: Do they remain pure and out of the Blaine House or reach toward the political middle and improve their chances of winning? Having lost one good candidate, they should take their time with that thought before losing another.

Todd Benoit is the editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News.