Times Record: For Dems, it’s 2010 again (Jan. 4, 2013)

They didn’t count all their nominating votes for president. They made “Austrian economics,” war on Islam and opposition to a public park part of their official platform. They claimed voter fraud without proof, forcing a costly referendum. They ransacked a school during their convention. And they piloted a hefty tax break for Maine’s wealthiest as the state bled red ink, forcing an immediate $35 million cut to education spending.

At least Maine Democrats have one thing going for them in 2014: Maine Republicans.

With the next two years promising a new era of legislative gridlock in Augusta — we’ll happily eat crow if that’s not the case — Democrats have precious little time if they hope to retake the Blaine House in 2014.

“Stop LePage” was a good formula in 2012. All a fundraiser or canvasser had to tell an undecided voter last summer was a “D” vote put a brake on the LePage administration. Money and votes followed, decisively.

But polls with a wider view tell a more positive story for LePage, who has the support of Maine’s well-organized tea party and even some moderate Republicans in a state where only 39 percent of the vote — or less — is enough to govern.

The daunting landscape for Maine Democrats in 2014 includes:

— Vote splitting. There’s now a playbook to defeating Maine Democrats: Split the progressives. It happened in 2010 and again in the race for U.S. Senate in 2012. The scenario is well-known: Run a moderate to force the Democrat left. Liberals hate this, because the same phenomenon doesn’t seem to work on the right, where LePage’s fringe candidacy was capped by a “surprise” victory in 2010.

— Independents. As Angus King taught us again, Maine loves its independents, and more voters are unenrolled than are Democrat or Republican. Indeed, there have been as many independent governors as Democratic ones in Maine over the past 38 years. Forget Elliot Cutler’s near-miss in 2010. Barbara Merrill — an independent with limited political experience — soaked up 22 percent of the vote for governor in 2006. The bigger issue may be that King, Cutler and Merrill are all former Democrats who defected — and then outperformed.

— Brand. In the two most recent statewide elections — huge, important, open-seat races — Democratic candidates failed to attract even one in five voters. Whether that signals a wider realignment is debatable. But if their message of middle-class empowerment is so attractive, why isn’t it translating into votes across Maine?

— Bench. Who is in the next generation of Democrats? In a state whose median age is among the highest in the nation, and given the frosty snub of its own U.S. Senate nominee last year, talk invariably turns to known quantities, none of whom has the obvious potential to open wallets or enthuse volunteers.

Mike Michaud is a popular name. But if he won, Democrats would be all but abandoning the House seat in the 2nd District. Steve Woods offers an option outside the establishment. Rosa Scarcelli? John Richardson? Janet Mills? Excited yet?

LePage will seek re-election. Cutler is all in. So to avoid another 2010, Democrats need to spend the next year locating a candidate with statewide appeal, hope the governor continues his penchant to speak freely, and keep claiming they’re the party whose proposals have brought economic empowerment to all Americans.

Even so, much can happen.

The economy could improve. Any number of crises could tilt the political landscape. We may end up with a huge field of candidates that shrinks the winning total even more.

It’s not out of the question that LePage is re-elected. Stranger things have happened in Maine politics.

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