Maine Democratic Party not ready for obit page

Maine Democrats won big this election year.

Be not afraid of third-place finishes or woe-sayers predicting doom for the party.

Yes, state Sen. Cynthia Dill finished a distant third place in the race for the United States Senate, repeating what occurred in 2010 when Democratic gubernatorial nominee and then state Senate President Libby Mitchell also finished third behind Republican Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler.

While those losses were certainly disappointing for Democrats, you’ll have to excuse me if I’m not ready to jump on the Democrats-are-doomed bandwagon and prematurely concede the governor’s race in 2014.

Take a step back, and here’s the reality.

Maine voters sent a strong message about their policy preferences: They booted a Republican-dominated Maine House of Representatives and a state Senate, replacing it with strong Democratic majorities.

In the 1st Congressional District, voters resoundingly re-elected U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, rejecting a bid by Republican Maine Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney.

In the 2nd Congressional District, recently redrawn to be more Republican, Democrat U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud easily handled Republican state Senate President Kevin Raye, despite heavy campaigning by his former boss and political benefactor U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe.

That, by any objective measure, is a rebuke of the last two years of Republican governance in Maine.

Now to the U.S. Senate race, where it’s apparently hard to see the forest for the trees.

Former Gov. Angus King was overwhelmingly elected to replace Snowe, who will retire at the end of her current term.

And while King is an independent, let’s consider the facts.

King supports Obamacare and endorsed President Barack Obama for re-election. He supports a woman’s right to choose and the ability of same-sex couples to marry. He ran on a platform of bringing common sense and problem solving to the U.S. Senate, where both are in short supply.

King, since election, has decided to caucus with Democrats in the Senate, which means a reliable Republican seat – which could have been Snowe’s for as long as she wanted it – has turned blue.

It was disappointing to Democrats in Maine that the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee would not support the party’s nominee.

But the national party played a Machiavellian game. It took the risk that the independent King gave them the best chance to claim a seat that had been solidly Republican.

It stung. But, the DSCC and NRSC turned out to be right. It’s hardball national politics.

In politics, there’s no trophy for second place. There’s just winning.

Lackluster Republican Charlie Summers is no nearer a seat in the U.S. Senate than Dill. Third place, second place, fifth place. It just doesn’t matter.

Between King and Dill, 63 percent of Maine voters backed a center-left candidate among the big three.

In the 1st Congressional District, 65 percent of voters supported Pingree. In the 2nd Congressional District, 58 percent supported Michaud.

Fifty-six percent of voters in Maine supported Obama’s re-election.

And 53 percent of voters supported allowing same-sex couples to marry.

Last year, 60 percent of voters supported a people’s veto to restore same-day voter registration.

And in 2010, nearly 62 percent of voters supported a candidate who wasn’t current tea party Gov. Paul LePage.

Maine is a center-left state. In particular races results may vary, but the underlying dynamic remains.

And even when independent and third party candidates divide the votes of that broad, progressive coalition, the center-left candidates have an opportunity for victory.

But somehow, it’s the Democrats who are in trouble?

Bah.

The Democratic Party has had trouble with well-financed, center-left independents who align with them on significant policy issues.

But that split can go both ways.

In 2006, Gov. John Baldacci was running for re-election, and Democrat-turned-independent Barbara Merrill ran a publicly financed campaign that had plenty of money. Green-Independent Pat LaMarche was also in the field, along with conservative Republican Chandler Woodcock.

Baldacci won with 38 percent to Woodcock’s 30 percent. Merrill captured 22 percent of the vote; LaMarche, 10 percent.

The race turned into a simultaneous Democratic primary and a general election, with three center-left candidates capturing an overwhelming 70 percent of the vote.

The numbers are pretty clear. Right-wing Republican candidates can only win statewide if the center-left coalition fractures. And even then, it’s not a sure thing.

Moderate Republicans, in the model of Snowe and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, are a different matter altogether, but the many members of the state GOP don’t seem to have a taste for their kind of politics.

Conservative Republicans peak below 40 percent.

Maine’s elections laws, which include public financing and a low threshold to make the ballot, make both political parties vulnerable to independent candidate challenges.

But looking at recent election results and the willingness with which the Republican Party alienates women, minorities and young voters, don’t count me among the obituary writers for the Democratic Party.