Picking the primary winners: Democratic edition

With eight weeks to go until Maine voters select their party nominees for governor, the Republican and Democratic primaries are still wide open. No obvious frontrunners have emerged, and no public polling has been released.

So, in the absence of quantifiable data, I’ll make some very subjective guesses about where these races are going.

I’ll start this week with the Democrats.

Maine Democratic gubernatorial candidates Janet Mills (clockwise from left), Adam Cote, Donna Dion, Mark Eves, Diane Russell, Betsy Sweet and Mark Dion.
BDN composite photo

Though seven candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination, this is really a race between three serious candidates: Janet Mills, Mark Eves, and Adam Cote. All three represent a distinct faction of their party’s base — Eves representing the progressive/Maine People’s Alliance bloc, Cote representing the centrist, pro-business bloc, and Mills representing the liberal-but-grounded Democratic bloc that governed Maine for three decades prior to the progressive takeover of the party.

Eves‘ orthodox progressive positions probably best reflect those of the activist base of the party. He’s a very likable person, and he presents very well in public. And with the unstated but obvious backing of the Maine People’s Alliance, he inherits an organizational structure unlike any of the other candidates.

That being said, I think Democratic base voters are looking for a champion after suffering under Gov. Paul LePage and President Donald Trump, and I don’t believe Eves projects the kind of alpha-presence they’re looking for, despite saying the rights things. His decision to engage in a protracted and unsuccessful (so far) lawsuit against LePage when he was prematurely fired from his position at Good Will-Hinckley cast him in an odd light, forcing him to recuse himself from some of the most intense battles with the governor despite his role as Speaker of the House. Rather than rise to the occasion and act as the liberal counter to the conservative bully, Eves got tangled in litigation and effectively took himself out of the game.

Cote is probably the candidate someone like me would most like to support. Pro-business, strong on national security, and socially liberal, I don’t think there’s a candidate in either party who more accurately reflects the viewpoints of the majority of Maine voters. He’s proven to be a very successful fundraiser, and projects a smart confidence that Maine voters are dying for after the last eight years of chaos. His biggest liability, however, is his choice to run in the Democratic primary. Just as the GOP base has drifted far to the right, the Democratic base has become so intolerantly progressive that a centrist like Cote, though probably their best bet to win the general election, will likely not survive a base-driven primary unless a perfect split occurs, leaving him all of the centrists while six other candidates split the left flank.

This leaves Mills. I believe Mills will win the Democratic nomination. And I think she’ll win convincingly enough that ranked-choice voting will not be a factor, if it ends up implemented in this election.

Her long track record with the Democratic Party over the years means she’s already well known and well liked among the activist base. Candidates benefit when they’ve put in the time, from driving other candidates around to pounding in yard signs to serving in the various party roles. Mills has been a team player for longer than her opponents combined.

She does have some challenges with the base — primarily her reasonable positions on gun laws, which reflect a centrist, rural Maine position more than a progressive Portland viewpoint. But she’s been a champion of liberal causes over the years, and has not shied away from direct and successful confrontation with LePage. She’s an intelligent liberal who knows state government as well as anyone, and is not afraid to defend her well-thought out positions in the face of criticism. She’ll be a viable general election candidate because of her roots in rural Maine, and she’ll be a much better nominee than both Mike Michaud and Libby Mitchell were.

The challenge for Mills, or whoever the Democratic nominee ends up being, will be the same challenge Democrats have had for the last two cycles: the presence of left-of-center independents. I think both Mills and Cote could be competitive in a head-to-head against any GOP candidate. But Independent candidates Terry Hayes and Alan Caron, both more appealing to Democrats than Republicans, will at a minimum garner 10 to 15 percent of the overall vote. This puts Republicans at a massive advantage. Ranked-choice voting will not be utilized in the gubernatorial election this fall, regardless of the outcome of the legal challenges currently at play, and that means the Democratic nominee will have to dominate the race in order to overcome this structural deficit.

With that in mind, Democrats would be wise to consider general election viability more than other factors when they go to the polls in June.

I’ll tackle the GOP nominees next week. Stay tuned!


Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.