This is an image from the Fox News interview with Democratic Maine state Sen. Chloe Maxmin last week.

As Democratic state Sen. Chloe Maxmin was promoting her new book in a nationally televised interview last week, producers at “Fox News” displayed two messages reinforcing a longstanding criticism that Democrats are elitists and unable or unwilling to talk to rural Americans.

Dem lawmaker says party has abandoned rural voters,” one caption stated. The next one read, “Dem Lawmaker says party is out of touch and impersonal.”

“One of the things I have experienced in my campaigns in rural Maine is that so many folks just haven’t been talked to by Democratic campaigns or Democratic canvassers,” Maxmin told the interviewer. “And so there’s this lack of direct experience within the Democratic Party of what rural folks are thinking and feeling.”

That message is not sitting well with some current and former officials of the Maine Democratic Party ahead of what is expected to be a difficult midterm election year for the party at the federal and state level.

It was just 12 years ago that Republicans took control of state government in Maine, winning the Blaine House and both legislative chambers. But Democrats have clawed their way back. For the last two election cycles, Democrats have regained control of those seats of power, something party officials argue could not have been possible without connecting to rural voters, whether they’re Republican, Democrat or unenrolled.

“After the red wave of 2010, it took Democrats 10 years to recover and it took pretty miraculous flips and there’s no way to have a majority in Maine without rural seats,” said Julia Brown, who ran the Democratic Party’s senate campaigns in 2020, the year Maxmin was elected. “As a Mainer, to have these candidates painted as out of touch with rural people just is untrue and it’s worrisome to me that her story of winning a blue-leaning coastal community in Maine would be applicable anywhere else.”

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Maxmin, now 29, was considered a rising star in the Democratic party since 2018, when she ran as an unabashed progressive in House District 88, which includes parts of Lincoln and Kennebec counties, and beat a Republican, whose party won the seat by 16 percentage points in 2016. Two years after winning that race, she won the District 13 seat in the Senate, which includes all of Lincoln County, by upsetting a well-known veteran Republican who was the Senate minority leader at the time.

And she says she did it by talking to conservatives and Republicans, including Trump supporters, against the advice of party officials.

“And over the past couple decades we have really seen Democrats lose footholds in rural America and that’s my community,” Maxmin told “Fox News.” “That’s my home. And I have run and won in two races in rural America in districts that Trump won and I have talked to people who voted for Trump.”

PROMOTING A BOOK

Maxmin and her campaign manager, Canyon Woodward, have written Op-Eds in the New York Times and Teen Vogue magazine criticizing the party. And Maxmin has been making TV appearances on shows like “Fox News” and “Real Time with Bill Maher” to promote their new book, “Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends on It.” That book has been four years in the making, Maxmin said.

Maxmin’s criticisms have delighted Republicans, who have long cast Democrats as elite urban-dwelling liberals who are unable to connect with rural voters.

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The Republican State Leadership Committee, which recruits, trains and supports Republican state candidates and legislators, issued a statement May 10 highlighting Democratic infighting on social media – a message that was amplified by the Maine Republican Party, which tweeted a meme of an animal eating popcorn.

“Maine Democrats are in complete disarray because they are losing their grip in rural communities they once dominated since voters can’t afford their radical agenda of high costs, food shortages and skyrocketing inflation,” National Press Secretary Stephanie Rivera said in a written statement. “If Maine Democrats can’t even agree on a 2022 election strategy, then they shouldn’t be trusted to govern.”

Brown worries that Maxmin’s media tour may end up hurting rural Democrats in an already difficult election year.

“She couldn’t have handed them a cleaner hit piece,” Brown said. “From my view, she’s standing on the necks of rural candidates campaigns in order to launch her national progressive pundit career that was her ultimate goal, not serving her constituents.”

Maxmin grew up on the family farm in Nobleboro. She got her start in politics and community organizing at the age of 12, when she was a vocal opponent of Plum Creek’s proposal to develop land around Moosehead Lake. After graduating from Lincoln Academy, where she started the Climate Action Club, she attended Harvard University, where she helped lead efforts to divest from fossil fuels. It was through the Divest Harvard initiative that Maxmin met her future campaign manager and co-author, Canyon Woodward.

NOT SEEKING RE-ELECTION

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Maxmin is not seeking re-election. Instead, she plans to go to law school. She and Woodward also have started a nonprofit, Dirt Road Organizing, which she said would provide resources and support to young candidates seeking office in rural areas across the United States.

Some Maine Democratic Party officials declined to speak on the record about the book or Maxmin’s comments. The party is focused on its annual convention, scheduled to begin Friday, ahead of what are expected to be very difficult gubernatorial and legislative races this fall. Democrats are working to project unity and smooth over frustrations among progressives, whose support will be needed, along with independents, to defeat former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who served two terms and has a knack for connecting with rural supporters.

“I’m proud of the work that rural Democrats have championed during my eight years in the legislature,” House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said in a written statement. “They’ve made sure rural perspectives are shaping policy in Augusta and their voices have been extremely important. These Democrats have worked hard to earn the trust of their neighbors to be their voice in Augusta. They have connected with voters of all political stripes, face-to-face by knocking on thousands of doors, to learn about the issues that matter most to their community members.”

Other party officials praised Maxmin as a candidate and for taking the time needed to knock on many doors and have authentic conversations with people of all backgrounds.

They stressed that all candidates are encouraged to knock on as many doors as possible, but some candidates don’t have the luxury of campaigning full time, like Maxmin did, because they have day jobs or families. That reduces the number of voter contacts, especially in Senate races.

They also said they had good relationships with Maxmin and her campaigns, making her critiques of the party more difficult to understand. And they cite a variety of candidates who have won seats in rural Maine, including Sen. Troy Jackson, of Allagash, Rep. David McCrea of Fort Fairfield, Rep. Jessica Fay of Raymond, Rep. Anne Perry of Calais, and Rep. Robert Alley of Beals. In 2020, party officials point out, Rep. Richard Evans was the first Democrat elected to represent Dover Foxcroft in the state’s most rural county, Piscataquis County, in over three decades.

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Some also are taking issue with how Maxmin is presenting her wins and her districts.

CLAIMS DISPUTED

Maxmin has said Lincoln County is the most rural county in one of the most rural states. But according to the 2020 U.S. Census, three other counties – Washington, Franklin and Piscataquis – have fewer people overall and fewer people per square mile.

Maxmin also says that she won the Senate seat in a district carried by Trump. But, while Trump did win Lincoln County in 2016, President Biden and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, both Democrats, carried the county in 2020, as did Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. And Barack Obama won the district in 2012.

And, while Maxmin defeated a high-ranking Republican, her coastal Senate district appears to be more of a swing district than a conservative or right-leaning one. Local Democrats actually consider it a blue-leaning district, a description that appears to be supported by party registrations. As of January, there were nearly 1,091 more registered Democrats than Republicans, 10,561 to 9,470. And Republicans trailed unenrolled voters by 141 registrations.

House District 88, which Maxmin won in 2018, does lean Republican. The party has 438 more registrants than Democrats, 2,462 to 2,024. Unenrolled voters make up the second-largest voting bloc, with 2,331 registrations.

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“As a 25-year-old climate activist with unabashedly progressive politics, Chloe was an unlikely choice to be competitive – let alone win – in a conservative district that falls mostly within the bounds of a rural Maine county that has the oldest population in the state,” Maxmin and Woodward wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed.

Maxmin said in an interview that she hopes people will read her book before casting judgment based on her Op-Eds or TV appearances. She said her book seeks to use her experience in Maine to offer a broader critique of the state of the Democratic Party nationally.

She said her book does give credit to and is written with love, care and empathy for rural residents and Democratic canvassers.

“It’s all from a place of respect and honoring the good work and good intentions of everyone in this space,” she said. “It’s all clearly stated in the book.”


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