By Tom Lamia
The election is over but the post-mortems are in a full gallop, seeking rationalization for what turned out to be close when a skunking would not have surprised. The goal now is to use the message of this one to win the next one. The challenge is to identify what happened, sort the good from the bad, and gather a consensus around something that your team can support. That will not be easy. In the meantime, I offer my observations.
Whatever happened, the lessons drawn must be true at every level of politics and in every political theater. To make changes a candidate or party must win in city, county, state and federal elections—enough to govern or, at least, to influence those who do. The November results seem to confirm, once again, that money, policies and personality are good but not sufficient. To win without fighting uphill the candidate must be a trusted member of the electorate community.
I am reflecting on the outcome of the Maine contest for a U.S. Senate seat, of which I have written in each of the last two of these monthly columns.
Susan Collins, the Republican candidate, not only won the Senate election; she won going away, with a final margin of nine points (51% to 42%) over the Democratic candidate Sara Gideon. By exceeding 50%, Collins put herself beyond the impact of Maine’s ranked choice voting law, a result not predicted by polls or seasoned judgment. Joe Biden, meanwhile, ran nine points (53% to 44%) ahead of Donald Trump in Maine. What explains this seeming example of cats and dogs lying together? I will give you my quick and dirty summary analysis and ask whether there is a lesson in it for seeking to find an answer to the question of what happened.
The judgment of old hands here in Maine is that Collins, the “local girl,” had an insurmountable advantage over Gideon, the girl “from away,” that inoculated her from Trump and Trumpism. Despite voter unhappiness with her over her recent Senate votes against conviction in the Trump impeachment trial and for confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh, neither popular statewide, she easily retained her seat for a fifth six year term The race was the second most expensive in the country (behind Montana’s) because Collins’ seat (like Montana’s) was expected to determine Senate control. I have learned in my time here that Maine voters have a more than ordinary respect for good character, good behavior and good order. These are attributes of the solid citizen and valued neighbor; they establish authenticity and provide a basis for conferring trust. And yet, in Maine, a person may have these attributes but fail to gain community trust. It is ridiculous, of course, that someone not born in Maine but a resident for a generation or more should be rejected as a stranger to its principles, hopes and fears, but it is the case. In the fierce and constant campaign dialogue, on television and in the press, Collins was wholly trusted as “the County Girl,” born in Caribou, resident in Bangor, while Gideon was “from Rhode Island” (her birthplace). Gideon had everything going for her, except a fact that she could not change and could not overcome.
As Angus King, the other Maine Senator has said, in the context of the political handicap of being “from away”: “I would have liked to have been born in Maine, but I thought it best to be with my mother, who was in Virginia at the time.”
Donald Trump did his best to defeat Collins, seeing her as insufficiently loyal despite her votes for his programs and Supreme Court nominees and against his impeachment conviction. In the months before the election, when Justice Ginsburg’s seat on the Court opened up, she said that to be consistent with the precedent established by her party in the last year of the Obama presidency, she would not vote to confirm a nominee until after the election. From that moment Trump trashed her at every opportunity, despite the Republican majority in the Senate being at stake. There were no Trump coattails for Collins; and no Collins coattails for Trump as the numbers suggest that there were many Maine Republicans who saw Collins as having Maine values that Trump lacked.
The West Village has a characteristic as a community that I see as similar to the Maine reverence for local origin. Not everyone who lives in the space between Sixth Avenue and West Street is cut from the same piece of cloth, but they do share a devotion to the history and social relevance of their community. Our residents have chosen to live in this community of what used to be called “free thinkers” who revel in their peculiarity of not having the opinions of others, whether or not in the majority. Jane Jacobs captured some of this quality in her life and in her writings about the architecture and street life of our community. Like being “from away” in Maine, being intolerant in the West Village is a disqualifier.