For all the skeptics about whether a Democrat can still win a statewide election, party Chairman Ben Grant has a message: Democrats will field a strong candidate for governor, and it will be someone the party can rally around.
In a recent interview, Grant used unusually blunt language in dismissing the notion – near-pervasive among reporters – that Democrats are doomed to finish third again because that’s where their candidate ended up in 2010.
Four years later, he said, things will be different. For one thing, Democrats found a message in the 2012 legislative races, which they swept. Some of the swing undoubtedly occurred because of reactions to two tumultuous years of Republican rule, he said, but there were plenty of new Democratic candidates out there who learned how to connect with voters.
Gov. Paul LePage, should he run again, will get at least 30 percent of the vote, Grant said – the normal minimum for a major party candidate. And with Eliot Cutler apparently gearing up for another independent bid, there exists the possibility of Democrats splitting the vote and re-electing LePage.
But Grant says flatly, “We’re not worried about Eliot Cutler.” He points out that Cutler’s late surge in 2010, doubling his poll numbers in less than two weeks, happened because Democrats deserted their candidate, Libby Mitchell, in an effort – unsuccessful, as it turned out – to prevent a LePage victory; he’d led the race from the beginning.
That won’t happen again, Grant said, because Democrats will field a strong candidate who’s been thoroughly vetted. “The party will play a larger role this time,” he said. “It’s not going to be about whether your friends want you to run.”
Grant’s pledge is unusual in an era when parties are more fundraising conduits than freestanding political entities that can determine which candidates get support. But Grant, who has never run for office, has a reputation as a tough-minded electoral strategist, a contrast with Democratic Party leaders of the recent past, who seemed almost apologetic about defending traditional Democratic positions. Also unusually, he’s seeking a second two-year term as party chair, saying he needs to finish the work he started in helping engineer the Democrats’ legislative comeback.
While committing to no timetable, Grant said the party will continue its discussions with possible top-tier candidates, with the aim of persuading one of them to run this time, something that signally failed to happen after Angus King jumped into the U.S. Senate race to replace Olympia Snowe.
Grant wasn’t shy about naming the top-tier candidates. In a state with no statewide offices besides governor, there are no surprises. He mentioned Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, and former Gov. John Baldacci, who’s already said he’d consider a run if Pingree or Michaud don’t make the race.
“Any of them would be a formidable candidate,” Grant said. “Any of them could win.”
Not that he’s trying to rush things: “This is a very personal decision, and no one else can make it.” Pingree and Michaud would have to give up their congressional seats, but, Grant pointed out, a two-member Democratic delegation has limited influence in a Republican House. Being governor, he suggested, has greater possibilities – and indeed, both Baldacci and John McKernan returned from Congress to become governor.
But even if none of the three run, Grant says there are other possibilities. Attorney General Janet Mills, back after a two-year hiatus, “comes from a great political family and would be a tough campaigner,” Grant said.
The point, he said, is that Democrats represent the largest number of voters in Maine, and even many nominal independents – nearly 40 percent of the electorate – “have predictable patterns of voting, and we know how to count.”
Booted out of the State House and the Blaine House in 2010, Democrats have learned some valuable lessons about what their party is, and what is might be, Grant said.
“Having a clear message is everything in politics,” he said. During the 2012 campaign, he said, Republicans didn’t do well at explaining what they’d done in Augusta, allowing Democrats to set the terms of the campaign. “Voters have a much better idea of what Democrats stand for than they did before.”
But, he added, “It has to be something substantive, not rhetoric. You have to have something to show for it.” Health care reform, he said, might be that issue, though he cautioned that each race takes on its own shape.
But the Democrats will be there in force, Grant said. “Democrats have won the presidential vote in Maine for six straight elections. It’s still the majority view for Mainers.”
Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He can be reached at [email protected]