Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Maine Republicans squander their chance

By Joseph R. Reisert
Morning Sentinel / Kennebec Journal November 10, 2006

Election Day 2006 was a bad day for Republicans, but it wasn't exactly a great day for what Howard Dean used to call the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" either. Republicans nationally scored no gains at all, taking not a single seat in Congress or a single governorship from the Democrats, while the Democrats reclaimed the majority in the House of Representatives, won several key Senate races, and returned six governors' mansions to Democratic control.

Those gains came, overwhelmingly, from the victories of moderate and even conservative Democratic candidates. Connecticut's Ned Lamont was the darling of the "netroots" activists on the left, and in his primary challenge to Sen. Joe Lieberman, he attracted the energy, attention and passion of the most ideologically motivated activists. But in the general election, Lieberman, running as an independent, prevailed handily.

Every Democrat I know rejoiced on Tuesday when Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum conceded defeat in his bid for re-election. A prominent social conservative, and the third-ranking member of the Senate leadership, Santorum was widely reviled by Democrats for his outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion and the destruction of embryonic human life. But his successor, Bob Casey, is no social liberal; nor does he favor the strongly redistributionist policies that once characterized the Democratic left. A pro-life Catholic, his website calls for action to "crush the terrorist threat," a return to fiscal responsibility in Washington and for economic policies to support small business.

In the Missouri Senate race, Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill sounded classically conservative themes in her successful bid to unseat Republican Jim Talent. In her campaign literature, she placed herself in the tradition of Harry Truman and John Kennedy; she accused the Republican Congress of being "weak-kneed" in the fight against terror and promised to see that "America retains its traditional military strength and its role as the pre-eminent power in the world."

A similar pattern holds in the House races, where a series of moderate to conservative Democratic candidates, such as the victor in North Carolina's 11th district, the pro-life, former NFL player Heath Shuler, took seats from Republican incumbents.

The national Democratic Party achieved such gains because the party leadership learned some hard lessons during their long years in the minority -- lessons which the Maine Republicans would do well to learn, and soon. The national Democrats understood that, in order to make progress on the one issue they care most about, they would have to embrace candidates whose positions on other issues diverged from those of their party's "base." The national Democrats wanted one thing in 2006: to elect candidates who would call President Bush to account for the failures of his policy in Iraq. In their bid to accomplish this single aim, the Democratic party leadership not only tolerated, but actively recruited, moderate to conservative candidates who would be maximally competitive with Republicans.

Like the Democrats nationally, Republicans in Maine have for many years now been languishing in the minority; and, like the Democrats nationally, Republicans in Maine substantially agree on what our government needs to do. Mainers substantially agree that the government spends too much and that our taxes are too high and ill-apportioned.

Just as the national trends in 2006 favored the Democrats, some statewide trends tended to favor Republicans this year. A widely admired Republican senator, Olympia Snowe, was running for re-election, and incumbent Gov. John Baldacci was widely unpopular, even among many Democrats.

Given these circumstances -- a vulnerable incumbent and a clear, popular issue that would attract voters from both sides of the partisan divide -- the Republicans should have come together to support a socially moderate or even liberal candidate, who would have advanced their principal agenda item: reducing spending and cutting taxes.

The election returns demonstrate the extent of the Republicans' missed opportunity: Gov. Baldacci won less than 40 percent of the vote, and the two candidates calling for fiscal responsibility in Augusta, Republican Chandler Woodcock and Independent Barbara Merrill, between them drew support from more than half of the electorate.

Had Maine's Republicans shown the political maturity of the national Democratic party leadership, we might now be anticipating the inauguration of Peter Mills as the first Republican governor in more than a decade. Instead, Maine's Republicans will remain in the political wilderness, ideologically pure, but politically impotent.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American Constitutional Law and chairman of the Department of Government at Colby College in Waterville.