The Road to 270 is a weekly column leading up to the presidential election. Each installment is dedicated to understanding one state’s political landscape and how that might influence which party will win its electoral votes in 2020. We’ll do these roughly in order of expected competitiveness, moving toward the most intensely contested battlegrounds as election day nears.
Known for its fierce independence, vibrant fishing industry, and its proximity to French Canada, Maine has developed unique politics distinct from that of lower New England. With its rural nature, Maine voters expect to see their politicians and retail politics is essential in this state. Despite its small size, Maine enjoys outsized clout in federal politics thanks to Mainers often rewarding their politicians for longevity of service.
Maine voters will experience something unusual this year: a competitive U.S. Senate race. Longtime Senator Susan Collins (R) is facing the race of her life from Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon (D). First elected in 1996, Collins has cultivated a moderate image during her career in the Senate. In recent years when Republicans have had a slim Senate majority, Collins has played a crucial role in the chamber. In 2017, when the GOP-controlled House passed a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, much attention was placed on the few Senate Republicans who could plausibly sink it when the bill came up in the upper chamber. Collins, along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and the late John McCain (R-AZ), sided with all 48 Democrats and voted down the repeal effort. This did wonders for Collins' popularity among Democrats, but that wouldn’t last.
The following summer, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced he was retiring. One by one, senators announced their support or opposition for the President's nominee -- Judge Brett Kavanaugh. For Collins, the Kavanaugh nomination was contentious for several reasons. As a Supreme Court Justice, Anthony Kennedy was the lone Republican-appointed Justice who would uphold the right to have an abortion. With Kennedy’s retirement, the Court would inevitably shift to the right and, therefore, Roe v. Wade would have a much greater chance at being overturned. By late summer came allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh, which increased the liberal pressure on Collins. After a lengthy speech on the Senate floor, Collins announced she would vote to confirm Kavanaugh. This immediately drew the ire among liberal groups and the search quickly began for a Democratic challenger.
In an increasingly polarized era, Collins is very much a throwback to a different time. In 2008, she won a third term by turning back a serious challenger in then-Rep. Tom Allen (D, ME-1). As Obama carried Maine by 17%, Collins was reelected by 23% -- so voters were clearly making a distinction. In 2014, national Democrats were largely on the defensive, so they didn’t target her; and she won with almost 70%. Gideon’s fundraising has far outpaced what Collins’ previous challengers have raised, and in the last fundraising quarter, she outraised Collins by $5 million. Major race prognosticators see this race as a ‘Tossup’ and Collins is in for the toughest reelection fight of her career.
Maine’s two Congressional Districts represent the two 'halves' of the state well. In southern Maine is the state’s 1st Congressional District, which is represented by Democrat Chellie Pingree. A former State Senator, Pingree actually ran against Collins in 2002; she lost by 16% but rebounded by getting elected to the House in 2008, to replace Allen. The 1st District is reliably Democratic and encompasses the southern coastal part of the state, including the Portland area. Per the Census, this district is narrowly divided between urban and rural population, which makes it one of the most rural congressional districts held by a Democrat. It is widely assumed that when Pingree retires, she will be succeeded by her daughter Hannah, who served as Speaker of the Maine House from 2008-2010.
The remainder of the state is covered by the 2nd Congressional District. The district covers nearly nine times more land area than the 1st, and is the largest in the Eastern Time Zone. This rural and overwhelmingly white district shifted strongly from Obama to Trump in 2016, so it is not necessarily a place you would expect Democrats to still find success. Still, Marine veteran and former Collins staffer Jared Golden (D) defeated Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R) in 2018. It was the first congressional election ever decided by ranked choice voting. Poliquin’s loss was also the first time a sitting Representative from Maine had been defeated for reelection in 100 years.
Although Golden should be a top Republican target this year, the Republican nominee, former State Rep. Dale Crafts, has fundraised poorly -- he reported just $32,000 on hand at the end of the second quarter. In contrast, Golden reported $2.2 million on hand. A recent Colby College poll of Maine had Golden 45-33% over Crafts. Though analysts such as the Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report rate this race as a ‘Tossup’ at the moment, do not be surprised if the race gets shifted to Golden’s favor as election day draws closer.
The Pine Tree State’s senior Senator is the independent Angus King. King served two terms as Governor, from 1995-2003. King began his political career as a Democrat, working as a legislative assistant for Sen. Bill Hathaway (D). When he ran for Governor in 1994, King decided to abandon the party label and run as an independent. The two party candidates were former Governor Joe Brennan (D) and Regional Coordinator for the Small Business Administration Susan Collins (R), who he’d later join in the Senate. King won the election with 35% of the vote and four years later took a commanding majority with 59% of the vote.
When longtime Senator Olympia Snowe (R) announced her retirement in 2012, speculation immediately fell on the two House Democrats from the state but King was also seen as a strong candidate. Ultimately no major Democrats ran and King waltzed to the Senate with 53% of the vote, 22% ahead of his nearest opponent. In the Senate, King has drifted a bit leftward from his time as governor but remains one of the chamber’s most moderate Senators. He has boasted high approval ratings, winning reelection with 54% of the vote in 2018. During the 2018 campaign, King said it would likely be his last race.
The 2018 Senate race is interesting to look at because it is a rare major contest with a serious third-party candidate. King clearly benefits from not having the party label. Unlike Bernie Sanders in close-by Vermont, King doesn’t run in the Democratic primary (Sanders does, but declines the nomination). In both of King’s senatorial elections, there were Democratic candidates on the ballot. Looking at King’s performance vs the two most presidential elections in Maine, King outran both Obama and Clinton but to varying degrees. King’s rural support was much better than Clinton’s, and in some places was stronger than what Obama received, but it also shows there was a lot of slippage in six years. Despite a stronger statewide margin, King only marginally improved upon Obama in some rural areas.
State level politics
Maine, along with Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Tennessee elects no statewide executive offices besides governor. Much like Alaska, Maine is incredibly friendly to third parties. 2018 was the first gubernatorial election since 1998 in which a winning candidate claimed a majority of the vote.
Despite its reputation for electing moderate Republicans to the Senate, recent Republican candidates for governor have been increasingly conservative (reflecting the shift across the GOP as a whole). Elected amidst the Republican wave of 2010 was the bombastic Paul LePage (R), who fashioned himself as a Tea Party-style conservative. Though he was term-limited in 2018, LePage is reportedly eyeing a comeback.
Speaking of term limits, the Maine State Legislature is an oddity among New England states: it’s the only legislature in the region that has them. The Maine Legislature restricts members to serving no more than eight years consecutively between the chambers, but members are eligible to serve again after a two year period. In the lower chamber, the House specifically allocates three non-voting representatives to the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. Following a dispute with the state in 2015, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Nation have withdrawn their representatives. The Houlton Band continues to seat their one member, though. Interestingly enough, Maine has a very low Native American population.
Democrats control both chambers of the Maine Legislature and are expected to hold those majorities -- but there are some rural Democrats at risk of losing their seats this year. Democrats have continued to thrive at the local level in rural Maine but some electoral trends may be catching up to them. Senate President Troy Jackson, a logger by trade, represents a rural seat in far-northern Aroostook County, and has proven quite popular. Needless to say, if Republicans hope to make any gains in the legislature, their path to victory runs through seats like Jackson’s.
Like Connecticut, Maine requires a 2/3 supermajority in both chambers to pass redistricting plans. Democrats currently fall short of that in both chambers, but they’ll be hoping to cement control of state government this year to shore up Rep. Jared Golden in ME-2, should he win reelection. That said, it’s possible the state’s two districts may not change much, though given the shifts in population, ME-2 will likely need to pick up residents, while ME-1 should contract, geographically.
In 2016, Mainers approved the use of ranked choice voting (also known as instant runoff voting). Ranked choice allows voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate reaches a majority, then the one who finished last is eliminated and their votes are redistributed. After legal challenges in 2017, another referendum was held in 2018 and RCV was approved for use that year. With Maine's habit of deciding elections by plurality, this ensures no one will again be elected without a majority of the vote.
Presidential politics and 2020 outlook
Like most of New England, Maine was reliably Republican at the presidential level for many years -- along with Vermont, it was one of two states that never supported Franklin Roosevelt. Before Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory, the Pine Tree state voted Democratic for President just three times (1912, 1964, and 1968) in the twentieth century. Maine has stayed in the blue column since, though there have been some close calls. With third parties taking 7% of the vote there in 2000, Al Gore ended up with a 49%-44% margin. Obama’s two big wins obscured how competitive the state is. Hillary Clinton only won the state by three points in 2016, with a huge collapse among the state’s many rural working class voters. Perhaps fitting a liberal stereotype, all the counties Clinton carried touched the coast. The shift from the 2000 to 2016 elections in Maine was an identical reflection of the 2016 county map. Every county that swung towards Clinton voted her and every county that swung towards Trump voted for him.
At the presidential level, Maine and Nebraska, are unique in that they allocate their electoral votes by Congressional District. 2016 was actually the first time since Maine adopted the method, for 1972, that a split occurred. Since Clinton won the statewide vote, thanks to her margin in ME-1, she received three of its four electoral votes, but Trump, who carried ME-2, nabbed its electoral vote. ME-1 almost always casts more raw votes than ME-2, which benefits Democrats at the state level.
The state’s demographics don’t particularly benefit Democrats anymore -- it’s older and whiter than the national average. It’s considerably more rural as well. Still, with the president’s approval rating sitting about 40%, Maine looks out of reach. The 2nd Congressional District is where all the action will be. Although it went for Trump by over 10 points in 2016, polling indicates Biden has a chance to flip it back. To put it simply, if Trump is struggling in places like ME-2 than he’s in a bad spot for reelection. Non-college educated whites swung sharply towards him in 2016 and if he can’t hold on to these voters, his path to reelection disappears. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates Biden as a favorite to carry three of Maine’s electoral votes but rates ME-2 as Leans Republican for Trump. Other outlets, like The Cook Political Report, recently moved their electoral college rating for ME-2 from ‘Leans Republican’ to ‘Tossup.’ Supporting that shift, the aforementioned Colby College poll showed Biden with a 45%-42% lead in the district.
Next Week: Minnesota
Going forward, we will use the model powering the 2020 presidential election simulator to determine the following week's state. Specifically, we will look at the 'Battleground 270' results of 25,000 simulations run late Sunday afternoon. Of the states remaining, the next to be covered will be that with the highest likelihood of a Trump or Biden win as of that date. View the current state-by-state probabilities in the table at the bottom of the Battleground 270 page.
Reports in this series: