Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Mills: The I's have it

Monday, February 13,2006

State Senator Peter Mills
Maine people have elected just one Republican governor in the past 40 years and state Sen. Peter Mills would like to change that. Whether his own party will help him remains an open question just four months before the GOP primary.

All told, there are 14 gubernatorial hopefuls this year, including three Republicans who are competing for the party nomination to run against incumbent Democrat John Baldacci. (Rounding out the field are two more Democrats, who will test Baldacci in the primary, seven independent candidates and one Green.)

The right flank of the Maine GOP opposes Mills because he's not conservative enough for them. In an interview last week, the Farmington native said he's just as big an elephant as the rest of the herd, but he won't be spending any of his time and energy trying to woe "the Rush Limbaugh wing of the (Maine) Republican Party" because they are not going to decide the election.

It's the independents, stupid, Mills could argue. And the numbers would bear him out:

  • The largest voting bloc in Maine is unenrolled voters, who make up 40 percent of the electorate and number almost 400,000.

  • Mainers have elected two independent governors, James Longley of Lewiston in 1972 and Angus King of Brunswick in 1994 and 1998. Historians believe that had Longley lived, he would have easily won a second term.

  • And the state gave Ross Perot, the independent billionaire presidential candidate, 30.44 percent of the vote in his first run in 1992, a fraction more than sitting President George H.W. Bush. It dropped to 14 percent in 1996, but that was still more than any other state in the union.

    Mills' state Senate district is heavily independent, and he has won their favor in each of the seven campaigns he has waged.

    "I think (conservatives) have to understand that politics and winning elections is about what you can do to appeal to independents," Mills said. "And I know something about independent voters."

    Mills shrugs off the label of "liberal," saying his long record in the Legislature, including the past four years on the Appropriations Committee, shows a strong record of fiscal restraint and problem-solving.

    "I think nine people out of 10 would say I'm a person who solves problems," Mills said. "I'll get the state straightened out."

    Meanwhile, Portland political pollster Patrick Murphy said in a recent interview that Baldacci would face a harder re-election campaign if Mills were the GOP nominee. He surmises that if conservative David Emery becomes Baldacci's primary opponent in November, he could not pull Democrats and independents away from Baldacci the way Mills could.

    Emery could hold the GOP right, Murphy said, but he would have a tough fight to attract mainstream Republicans and an even harder battle to win the hearts and minds of Maine's independent voters.

    "If the Republicans nominate Mills, it will be a very, very interesting race," Murphy said. "It will be a fascinating election with a very spirited debate, and I think that's good for the state."

    Liz Chapman has covered local and state government in Maine for 20 years. She is presently the Sun Journal regional editor.