Maine’s economic recovery eludes the north, may put the state in play

The theme of this site is how vastly different life is for those who live in America’s rural and small towns than it is for those who live in cities and urban areas. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Maine, one of the nation’s most heavily divided states. Even just glancing at an electoral map of the state is stark — the southern coast easily going to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump coasting to victory in Northern Maine, a much more rural area.

Maine is one of only two states (the other being Nebraska) which allocates electoral votes proportionally based on how candidates perform there. In practice, this hasn’t mattered much, as the winners of the state have gotten all of the votes in most elections. This changed in 2016, when Trump was able to snag one of Maine’s four electoral votes, winning handily in one of the congressional districts.

Much of this can be attributed to Maine’s strong independent streak. Mainers are much more likely to vote for independent and third-party candidates than just about any other state, and one of only two independent senators, Angus King, is from Maine, the other being Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. King is also a former governor, also having served his term as an independent.

It isn’t just the penchant for electing independents that sets Maine apart either. Even their Democratic and Republican officeholders tend to be much more moderate than elsewhere in the nation. A Democrat in Maine is likely to have more in common with a Republican in more liberal areas, and a Republican more in common with a Democrat in conservative areas.

It may come as something of a shock to learn that, given the state’s moderate bent, they have one of the more extreme Republican governors in the Nation, Paul LePage. LePage’s tances on everything from abortion and same-sex marriage to economics and the environment put him decidedly to the right of most Americans, and well to the right of Mainers. He is also known for making racist remarks and speaking before he thinks, much in the same way President Trump does.

Governor Paul LePage

With all of that said, Maine has entered a new era of prosperity, thanks in part to austerity measures championed by LePage. Shoving people off of welfare and reducing government costs and taxation have been key issues for him and, for better or for worse, it seems to have bolstered the state’s economy.

This prosperity has not been evenly spread throughout the state, however. The urban south has had unemployment and revenue levels improve to 2007 levels, with some areas even showing improvement. Much of this has been driven by tourism and job creation in service industries. But the rural north has lagged far behind as blue-collar jobs like construction, timber, and industrial manufacturing have struggled to catch up.

President Trump campaigned on promises which, while light in substance, spoke to unemployed and underemployed people like those of Northern Maine. In return, these are the voters who flocked to him in the election, and his appeal to anti-establishment ideals appealed to the independent streak Mainers are known for. And, while he didn’t carry the state, he got much closer than any Republican has since the state flipped to blue nearly 30 years ago.

Maine as a whole seems poised to become a battleground state, especially as the rivalry between the north and south becomes more pronounced. The state’s four electoral votes aren’t a particularly huge prize, and the possibility of them being split pushes the state nearly into irrelevant territory. But small prizes add up quickly, and with neighboring New Hampshire also moving back toward swing state status, the GOP smells blood in New England. And with both Maine and Vermont unafraid to vote third-party and New Hampshire’s growing libertarian population, the entire region suddenly looks to be in play.

Flagstaff Lake in Stratton, Maine

President Trump hasn’t done much to gain goodwill among those in Northern New England, and his anti-environmentalist pushes haven’t helped much. In Maine in particular, Governor LePage’s economic successes haven’t been able to eclipse his bigoted outbursts and uneven temper, and his stances on social issues have helped to push him down among the most unpopular governors in the nation. As one of Trump’s most vocal supporters, LePage could pull him down in the state — though cracks in their alliance have been shown as the president has made jokes about the governor’s rotund appearance, among other things.

In any event, New England as a whole will likely retain its shade of blue, especially in the south. But Democrats would be foolish to take Maine and its neighbors for granted as long as economic recovery eludes those in outlying areas.

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