Halfway through October, it’s possible to see an election season’s trends, and in Maine – and New England as a whole – the Republican brand appears to be in trouble.
Congressional races that were supposed to be tight – such as Kevin Raye’s challenge to incumbent five-term Democrat Mike Michaud in the 2nd District – really aren’t, and Republicans also seem to be bracing themselves for the loss of Olympia Snowe’s U.S. Senate seat, one they’ve held since 1994.
In a sense, this is a story that’s been unfolding over the last two decades. It began when Newt Gingrich campaigned for U.S. House speaker on the hard-right platform that has dominated the GOP ever since. Gingrich was speaker for just four years, and the course he set for Republicans has produced dismal returns in New England.
At one time, liberal Republicans were the choice of many New Englanders, and their gradual exclusion from the ballot – even moderates are now suspect – has badly hurt the party’s appeal.
The exodus of Republicans from New England congressional seats began in 1990, when Vermont elected a Democrat to its lone House seat, and it picked up speed with Gingrich’s ascent. Rhode Island hasn’t elected a Republican to the House since 1994, and Maine hasn’t since 1996. Massachusetts has had 10 Democrats in its delegation since 1996, and Connecticut ousted the last Republican from its five-member delegation in 2008.
New Hampshire, the most traditionally Republican of all the New England states, is something of an exception, and in 2010 voters choose two Republicans for the House – an election that also saw Republicans sweep Maine’s elections for governor and the Legislature.
But 2010 is looking more and more like an anomaly, not a trend. The two N.H. House seats could switch to the Democrats again and, if they do, for the first time ever Democrats will hold all of the 22 U.S. House seats in New England.
Republicans have done a bit better in governor’s races and Senate contests, but not much. Eight of the region’s 12 senators are Democrats, or caucus with them, and Republicans stand to lose two more seats this fall – in Maine, where Angus King has led the race throughout, and in Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Warren has pulled ahead of Scott Brown. Brown was chosen in a stunning special election upset in 2010 that’s not likely to be repeated.
Of the six governors, only Paul LePage is a Republican; Rhode Island has Lincoln Chafee, an independent and former Republican who – significantly -- lost his U.S. Senate seat in 2008 primarily because of the R after his name.
A region that, until the 1960s was predominantly Republican, will have become nearly as solidly Democratic as the old Solid South, before the Civil Rights movement.
While the New England-wide trend is welcome if you’re a Democrat, it’s frustrating if you have other leanings, or simply believe that a two-party system can be effective only through competition.
The 2012 campaign is, unfortunately, no exception to the apparent Republican belief that the party can’t go too far right, particularly on its signature issue – the contention that government is always the problem, and the solution to every public issue is to turn it over to the private sector.
This strategy is especially peculiar because, just four years ago, we saw the global financial system collapse because of the excesses of profit-seeking in the private sector. Only the power of the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury Department staved off the onset of another Great Depression.
But rather than reassessing their jaundiced view of government, Republicans redoubled their attacks. When President Obama took a Republican-friendly approach to health care reform – boosting for-profit insurers and drug companies rather than turning to a Medicare-for-all approach that every other developed nation uses – he was rewarded with derision and unanimous GOP opposition. Olympia Snowe’s departure from the Senate was officially due to “partisanship,” but it really had more to do with her inability to convince even one of her GOP colleagues to negotiate on a health care bill.
The approach worked in the 2010 election as Republicans exploited the understandable fears that change, and hard times, always create. But it’s not working in 2012, and it’s hard to see how it gains any more votes in future elections. Is it really likely that running against Amtrak, Planned Parenthood and Public Broadcasting is the path to success?
New England politics have usually been moderate, not highly ideological, and focused on results. The near-disappearance of one party from the scene carries a message that so far hasn’t been heard.