LEWISTON — In Tuesday's tense, tight race for the Blaine House, Lewiston — traditionally a Democratic stronghold — picked a Republican.
Paul LePage's margin of victory over independent Eliot Cutler was 7.5 percent, significantly larger than the 1.84 percent gap statewide.
Some speculated that LePage’s Franco-American heritage provided him the extra support here or that Cutler’s popularity split the Democratic vote.
But experts and watchers alike say Lewiston is not as pro-Democrat as it appears and other factors played into the city voting for its first Republican governor since 1990, when John McKernan won a second term in the Blaine House.
Fueling speculation over the outcome was the fact that LePage's support in Lewiston did not extend to his Republican colleagues. U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, a Democrat, took Lewiston with roughly 60 percent of the vote; Democrat Margaret Craven, running for state Senate, got nearly 54 percent; and four of five Maine House seats went to Democrats.
Chris Potholm, an author and professor of government at Bowdoin College, suggested that a key to LePage’s success was his support in the Franco-American community.
"When you think of any Republican or any independent winning statewide, they only do so if they do well with the Franco vote,” he said. In this case, “the independent and the Republican did better with that vote than the Democrat did.”
Potholm said LePage was more successful than Cutler or Democrat Libby Mitchell at connecting with Franco-Americans who "seemed to be dissatisfied with the current situation.”
Potholm said that, previous to 1972, Franco-Americans almost always voted with Democrats, particularly in major elections. However, since 1972, when Maine voters delivered both houses of Congress to Republicans, it has been “the campaign ‘as campaign’ that determines the outcome. ... If you have a good campaign, you take it to Lewiston and the Lewiston people will vote for you, even if you’re an independent or Republican.”
Potholm believed Lewiston voters chose LePage not simply because he is a Franco. "They went for him because he seemed like someone who wanted smaller government” and shared their values.
Thomas Shields, chairman of the Androscoggin County Republicans, supported the idea that Cutler had split the vote in LePage's favor, but Shields also believed LePage's message resonated with voters. "I think the population identified with LePage and liked what he said.”
The results were "pretty consistent with what we've seen statewide," said Ted Small, chairman of the Androscoggin County Democrats. Small pointed out that, winner or not, LePage failed to get a majority of the vote in Lewiston, a pattern mimicked statewide.
Small contended that LePage's success in Lewiston was not due to a lack of overall Democratic support. He pointed to the divisive split to the Democratic electorate caused by Cutler's popularity. "I think the numbers bear this out," he said. "Most people didn't vote for LePage."
To suggest that a single factor explains LePage’s success in Lewiston would be incorrect, said Douglas Hodgkin, an author and professor emeritus at Bates College. To some extent, he said, it can be attributed to a very strong door-to-door effort in Androscoggin County. The presence of a strong third-party candidate also contributed to LePage’s victory.
Hodgkin said he saw the outcome as indicative of a sea change within the GOP.
“The Republican party, nationally, is trending toward more middle-class, working-class supporters," Hodgkin said. "LePage broke through the image of Republicans as upper-class rich people, and he really appealed to people (who are) middle class and working.”
Hodgkin said LePage attracted many new supporters to the party and “many said they were there only because of LePage.”
Dan Demeritt, LePage’s press secretary during the campaign, re-emphasized the role of on-the-ground campaigning in Lewiston. “Paul’s Franco heritage certainly played a role,” he said. However, “we spent a lot of time and energy in Lewiston. It’s his hometown; he’s very fond of Lewiston and he feels a strong connection to the city.”
LePage visited the city more than a dozen times during the campaign, according to Demerrit, and the city was home to an energized campaign headquarters.
Demeritt also said LePage’s platform attracted Lewiston voters. “The jobs message that he talked about really resonates in Lewiston,” Demeritt said.