Special Feature by Jill Goldthwait
Democrats, feel free to follow along, but this week it is time to talk turkey with the Republicans. The primaries are coming up and the Republicans will blow it again if they do not get a little help from their friends. So let’s say the Republicans really want to sleep at the Blaine House and not with the fishes. How can they make it happen?
The party is paddling madly to catch the wave of voter unrest. To do that, Republicans must broaden their appeal, not narrow it. A GOP candidate who appeals only to the party base has no hope of winning the general election. Just 28 percent of Maine voters are registered Republicans, and not all of them lean to the right. Their only hope of a win in the general election is to (a) appeal to Republicans broadly, not just the right wing; (b) attract the positive attention of independent voters; and (c) grab a few Democrats, too. This you will not do, dear Republicans, with a candidate who is Rush Limbaugh’s idea of a good time.
In the last gubernatorial contest, conservative Republican Chandler Woodcock received 30 percent of the votes in the three-way general election against 38 percent for the winner, incumbent John Baldacci. If a conservative candidate came that close, what would have happened with a more moderate Republican?
There are seven Republicans in the primary this time around. Even the long shots will get some votes, siphoning off a few percentage points that could mean life or death for other candidates. The winner of the primary is likely to be the proud owner of just one third of the votes cast. Figure a 50 percent turnout, which is generous, and that translates to about 5 percent of all registered voters.
Once that candidate is chosen, how will he appeal to enough voters in the general election? Many moderates can live with the Republicans’ economic core issues. Job creation, tax reduction, less business regulation, even smaller government will resonate with voters who are under water economically. But moderates will go only so far. To have a shot at avoiding their usual second place finish next fall, Republicans had best give us a candidate who speaks to our worry about the economy but does not adhere to right-wing ideology. We are in the mood to support a fiscal conservative, but not if he comes with a bundle of unacceptable social positions tucked under his arm.
Nobody wants a governor who advocates wasteful spending, so that part of the Republican message works. Welfare reform, to the extent it makes the system better at identifying the truly needy, will also fly. But how many moderates want to repeal the as-yet-untested federal health care reforms? A candidate might survive who is pro-life, or opposed to gay marriage, or opposes all gun control measures, but not if he is all of the above.
If the end game is universal appeal, it is hard to pick a candidate who comes closer than Peter Mills. He marches to his own drummer, a habit that has earned him life tenancy in the party doghouse, but that could make him the electable Republican. He is smart, very smart. His Web site, position papers and personal appearances spill over with information. Who else knows how many babies born in Maine are addicted to opiates? Each citizen’s share of unfunded retirement benefits? The number of state bridges over 50 years old? You name it, Sen. Mills can recite the history, the data and three ways to do it better.
There is another advantage for Republicans to making Sen. Mills their choice for the November election. In a debate, he is more than a match for any candidate the Democrats put up. Four of their team have many years of state experience. The best of them would be challenged in a one on one with candidate Mills.
Maine is facing big, tough problems. The smarter you are and the more you know about how state government works, the more likely it is that you will be able to fix what’s broken. Senator Mills is utterly believable when he leans across the table, driving his index finger into a pile of state reports, audits and studies, saying he does not need more of them, he knows what to do and is ready to do it. How many times have Republicans said government should be run more like a business? CEO’s of big corporations do not get where they are with promises, platitudes and sound bites. They know the numbers. They obsess about the numbers. Peter Mills knows the numbers.
With the next state budget lining up to be even more challenging than the one just passed, it could be the right time for a Republican in the Blaine House. So, Republicans, give us a general election candidate that will allow us to say, “Yeah. I could vote for him.” Because as soon as the primary is over, it’s not about you anymore. It’s about us.