ELLSWORTH — Republicans had a message that resonated with voters, articulated it well and did better among their key constituencies in the elections that took place earlier this month.
That was the part of the message that Amy Fried, political science professor at the University of Maine and a blogger and op-ed writer as well, brought to a meeting of Hancock County Democrats Nov. 20 at City Hall in Ellsworth.
Republicans did well both in Maine and nationally. Paul LePage won re-election as Maine’s governor, Bruce Poliquin won the Second Congressional District seat that hadn’t been held by the GOP for two decades and the party retook control of the Maine Senate while expanding its ranks in the Maine House.
At the national level, the GOP won control of the U.S. Senate and picked up governor’s seats as well.
In Maine, LePage received more votes than any gubernatorial candidate in Maine in the past 60 years. Though an official number has not yet been released by the secretary of state, it appears LePage received at least 11,000 more votes than the previous record-holder (Democrat Joe Brennan, who got 281,066 votes in 1982).
Fried said LePage and his team focused on the Governor’s accomplishments rather than his sometimes abrasive words and also brought in his wife, Ann, to help “smooth some of the rough edges.”
“They had incredible message discipline,” said Fried, noting the LePage campaign’s focus on welfare and tax reform and repayment of the hospital debt, among other topics. Democrats, she said, did not do as good a job of promoting policies.
Fried, as others also have argued, said LePage was helped by the presence of the bear baiting referendum on the ballot. Though she said it’s hard to get exact numbers, she said she has heard anecdotal evidence — some of it from her students — that some voters who hadn’t gone to the polls in years voted this year primarily so they could vote against banning bear baiting.
“When they were there, they voted for LePage,” Fried said. “It’s a real phenomena.”
Fried said the presence of Eliot Cutler on the ballot had an impact on the election, though she didn’t say it cost Democratic candidate Mike Michaud the election. She said Cutler spent more time criticizing Michaud than LePage, and that had some effect in bringing voters to Cutler’s camp from Michaud’s.
Across the country, Fried said President Barack Obama’s low approval rating “was not helpful” to Democratic candidates in general.
She noted that many of the seats Democrats lost in the U.S. Senate this year were ones the party had won in 2008, when Democrats did well, but that those same seats also were “overwhelmingly in places where [Republican presidential candidate Mitt] Romney won in 2012.”
Fried shared statistics from exit polls in the gubernatorial race and her view on what they mean for Democrats.
She said women broke for Michaud by a margin of three points (47-44), but LePage did much better among men (winning by 14 points — 53 percent to Michaud’s 39 percent).
That mirrors a national trend, where women favored Democrats by four points but while Republicans did better among men by 16 points.
“That’s a big gap right there,” Fried said. “It’s hard to imagine Democrats will win elections if they lose men by the margins they did this year.”
Each of the two major-party candidates did well within their respective political base, Fried said, but LePage did much better.
Michaud won 79 percent voters identifying themselves as liberal and 78 percent of Democrats, but LePage won 86 percent of self-described conservative voters and 87 percent of Republicans.
“Seventy-eight is good, but it’s not 87,” Fried said.
Likewise, she noted that while Michaud won among voters making less than $30,000 a year and those making more than $100,000 annually, LePage did well with those in between.
“You cannot win with just the people at either end of the spectrum,” Fried told the audience.
She said Democrats in general are “having problems prevailing on economic issues,” and said the GOP projects a better message on that front. She said while helping the needy is “part of the Democratic soul,” referring to government assistance programs, she said the party must also show it is serious about fiscal responsibility.
“You cannot cede that to Republicans,” she said.
Fried closed her presentation by taking questions from the audience, including one about the large number of unenrolled voters in Maine (also referred to as independents).
She said while some voters are simply “turned off by politics in general,” and don’t like the idea of affiliating themselves with one of the two major parties, she said that “most people who call themselves independent are really not.”
“Most of them lean to one party or the other,” she said, referring to the book “Myth of the Independent Voter” that came out in 1992. “And if they say they lean, they vote just like partisans.”