What National Democrats Can Learn From Maine

We are barely into 2018 and many politicians and pundits are looking towards 2020. President Trump has announced his campaign manager and his new slogan (making sure to take a page from Jeb!), while many potential Democrats are coincidently popping up in the early states and helping fundraise for fellow Party members. With the long list of potential Democrats and the longer list of Trump mishaps, many are seeing a blue White House in the new decade. Polling even shows many potential Democratic nominees leading Trump. However, now is not the time for anyone, particularly Democrats, to make assumptions that Trump repeatedly shooting himself in the foot will be enough, or that Robert Mueller will solve the problem for us. Some of us have been here before, facing a no-filter Republican candidate with abysmal approval ratings and momentum seemingly on our side.

Back in 2014, the prevailing wisdom was that there was no possible way Maine’s Governor Paul LePage would win reelection. In 2010, LePage’s victory was seen as a fluke since he won with 38% of the vote barely beating out an independent candidate, and the Democratic candidate coming in third with 19%. LePage was a poster child for the Tea Party movement and his governing style did not disappoint his supporters.

Then in 2012, Maine Democrats had a banner year, winning 6 seats in the Maine State Senate and 15 seats in the State House to take back the majority in both chambers. Nationally, President Obama won reelection, we picked up eight seats in the House of Representatives, and gained two seats in the U.S. Senate. Life was good, and it felt like momentum was on Democrats’ side both in Maine and in many states across the country.

However, heading into 2014, this optimism quickly died. In Maine, we lost four Senate seats, giving up the majority, and LePage was reelected to many people’s dismay. LePage had a laundry list of controversial statements and positions, from telling NAACP leaders they could “kiss my butt” to blaming immigrants for an increase in hepatitis C and HIV and describing the Senate majority leader as “a ‘bad person’ with ‘no brains’ and a ‘black heart’” in addition to “a graphically lewd statement” that the New York Times didn’t quote. All of this made for a confusing and painful election night in 2014.

All of this is to say, Mainers, and those who have kept an eye on their politics, are having déjà vu all over again. President Trump’s win in 2016 was a surprise to just about everyone. He was viewed as utterly unelectable, to say the least, and his win is often dismissed as a once in a lifetime occurrence. Since taking office he has record unfavorability numbers and he is not doing anything to help himself out of the hole. Many on the Democratic side are viewing his tenure as a guaranteed four years at best. We have been here before, and we are strongly urging Democrats not to fall into the same trap as we saw in Maine in 2014.

So far it seems as if 2018 is shaping up to be a good year for Democrats. Democratic candidates have flipped close to 40 legislative seats, have made strong Republican districts competitive, and, most recently, have had champagne corks popping in many circles around the country with Conor Lamb’s victory in southwestern Pennsylvania. The positive vibes are great, and Democrats should enjoy the possibility of what is to come this November. But, and we cannot stress this enough, we cannot sit back and assume that a good 2018 means that Trump’s goose is cooked.

If this year turns out to be as good as we are hoping it will be, and as good as 2012 was for Maine Democrats, we run the risk of falling into the same trap nationally. In 2014, Maine Democrats had nominated a great candidate on paper (former congressman Mike Michaud) who had served in Congress for 12 years and was incredibly popular for a Democrat in the more conservative parts of the state. His campaign, and Democrats broadly, focused on LePage and his colorful style of governing. Prevailing wisdom was that LePage was capped in his potential level of support. Voters would see through his bluster and want to put an adult back into the Governor’s office. LePage’s favorability numbers were low and everything seemed to be lining up for a strong night for Democrats. But a funny thing happened on the way to Election Night, the voters didn’t buy into the narrative. We made the election about LePage, as opposed to what a Michaud government would mean for voters’ everyday lives.

Sound familiar? It should. If Democrats have a great night this November, there should be celebrations, there should be congratulations, and there should be an enjoyment of the moment. Then it will be time to move on and start focusing on voters and 2020. Do not read into the results of 2018, do not take Trump for granted, do not assume a reasonable candidate is all Democrats need to win. Most importantly, it’s not about Trump, it’s about how voters will be better off with a Democrat in the White House. If we make this about Trump, if we focus on how wrong voters were to put him in office in the first place, if we assume it was a fluke we will be opening ourselves up to repeating what we saw happen in Maine four years ago.

Eight years of a Trump Administration unthinkable? Ask Maine Democrats how possible 8 years of Paul LePage seemed before November of 2014.