In 2008, Barack Obama beat John McCain in Maine by a seventeen point margin, his tenth-best finish. Two years later, Maine voters narrowly elected Paul LePage, a Republican backed by Tea Party groups who said he would tell “Obama to go to hell.”
“The most dominant storyline for me was the complete rejection of the Democratic establishment,” said Michael Franz, a political science professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. That’s because LePage only narrowly edged out the independent candidate, while the Democrat sunk with less than twenty percent of the vote. “That’s one of the odd features of Maine politics really is that it can be so definitely for a Democratic presidential candidate and then a few years later sort of throw everything for a loop.”
As the autumn chill begins its descent southward, it's not just the crisp air that's making the rest of the country feel a little like Maine. Here, anti-establishment independence and economic populism is nothing new. Here in the state where Ross Perot came in second in 1992, a deep sense of alienation from Washington is resonating with that rebellious streak.
Across the country, it may not be clear what Occupy Wall Street protesters, Tea Party supporters or independent voters are really after in the 2012 election, but it’s clear Americans agree on one thing: the status quo stinks. President Obama’s approval rating is at the lowest of his presidency, with the approval rating for Congress stuck around just 15 percent since the debt ceiling standoff last summer. And in a new Time poll this month, a full 86 percent of voters said corporations and lobbyists have too much power in Washington.
The Angry Independent
Count Stan Colby among them.
“I truly believe that neither party represents the actual working class America," Colby, an independent voter from Richmond, Maine. After serving in the military, he built ships but now works part-time at a local Veterans Affairs Hospital. “Put it this way. I’m still proud to be an American. I can’t stand my government, because I feel like we are drastically going in the wrong direction."
Colby voted for McCain in 2008, but this month, he found himself cheering on his daughter, whom he calls "a 60's throw-back hippy," as she headed down to New York to protest Wall Street. "When your leaders are teling you this billionaire is paying less than his secretary, something’s drastically wrong with that," he said.
But next year, Colby expects he'll support Mitt Romney for president. "Everything needs to be changed up down there," he sighed. "Everybody needs to leave."
And when it comes to state politics, Colby still counts himself as a supporter Republican Governor Paul LePage. “Speaking bluntly, he's got a set of gonads."
The Divided Independent
“I think some of LePage’s brassiness was just so fresh and so new,” Lynn Spiro said of LePage's appeal. She's an independent voter and owner of the Town Landing Restaurant in Bowdoinham, Maine. She didn't vote for the governor, but she finds his unvarnished delivery refreshing.
Still, she hasn’t agreed with the governor on everything, which she attributes to her mixed politics.
“As a business owner I see things from some of the conservative side. As a mother and a person who cares about the town I live in, I see things on the more liberal side.”
That keeps conversation interesting as her small town’s diverse political crowds that streams through her restaurant. “You’ve got your extremes on both sides,” she said. “The running joke in town is I get my Republicans in the morning, my luncheon Democrats and my Sunday sinners.”
LePage was elected in Maine with only 39 percent of the vote, and a majority of Maine voters disapproved of Governor LePage in a poll in May. That came after a series of high-profile political flare-ups. Shortly after taking office, LePage said NAACP leaders could “kiss my butt” after he was criticized for not meeting with them, and later courted controversy by trying to remove a worker-centered mural from the state Department of Labor headquarters.
This helped bolster organizing for a LePage backlash. A new progressive organizing group called Maine's Majority started as a Facebook campaign, but has become most well-known for its bumper stickers that declare what they're against: "61% — We Did Not Vote for Paul LePage."
With all this controversy, it’s important to point out that in the poll last spring, LePage was no less popular than the Democratic governor was before he left office because of term limits. Nearly an identical majority share of voters disapproved of the Democrat as he left office after eight years.
The Worried Independent
Nailing down a majority in Maine can prove slippery. Just ask Angus King, the former independent governor of Maine who was the last governor to be elected with a majority vote in his 1998 reelection.
“It’s somewhat a misnomer to talk about independents as a group because almost by definition they’re not a group,” the governor said last week. And he said it can be particularly difficult during the volatility of a bad economy.
“Times of economic stress are dangerous times politically. People are frustrated, angry scared, uncertain, insecure — and there’s a tendency in a situation like that to look for simple answers,” King said. That's an instinct that political campaigns encourage, he said. “Politicians have led us to that place – vote for me, taxes will go down and we’ll have plenty of jobs.”
But what policymakers have in the absence of quick solutions, King emphasized, is their ability to make citizens feel seen and acknowledged. Here’s where King said leaders in Washington have failed, including President Obama, whom the governor supported in 2008.
“Part of this job is much more than just trying to run things. It’s symbolic and emotional and empathetic. And that’s where he hasn’t met the expectations of the public, and yet I don’t see anyone in the Republican field who has that quality either.”
“It’s really a question of connecting with people and I think that’s part of what people are looking for,” he said. “I hope if they find such a person, it’s somebody s someone who connects in a positive way and can lead us in a positive direction.”
“Unfortunately, in a situation like this, it can go either way.”