Is Maine Stealing Our Political Thunder?

Is Maine stealing our political thunder?

illustration by peter noonan

In the mid-1990s, after a century as a Republican stronghold, New Hampshire suddenly was up for grabs. It snagged the title of the most interesting state in New England to watch politically, and was on its way to becoming the most interesting in the entire country.

But 20 years later, the Granite State, while still very interesting, seems to be losing its fascination factor to Maine, which appears ready to undergo a major political transition itself.

In the 2016 presidential election, Maine split its electoral college vote for the first time in history. Just like the 1992 election in the Granite State, that could prove to be Maine’s harbinger of change — and the 2018 contests promise to be even more critical, possibly provoking the biggest political shakeup in nearly 40 years. But more on our neighbors Down East later.

In New Hampshire, we can pride ourselves on a great run of elections when our voters really mattered and all kinds of nonstop national media attention was lavished on the state. Following the 1996 election came the dramatic 2000 New Hampshire presidential primary, when Republican John McCain went all in for a charm-filled retail politician’s campaign, shocking the political establishment.

In the 2000 general election, the Granite State was officially considered a swing state, and it lived up to the hype. Republican George W. Bush only won the state in a fluke of sorts — his margin of victory over Democrat Al Gore was by fewer votes than Green Party candidate Ralph Nader received.

Four years later, it was the same tight dynamic with a Democratic presidential candidate winning by a percentage point.

It would go on like this for every presidential cycle since, with very tight margins and a national audience. Combined with that were elections in other years that bounced back and forth between the parties. In 2006, for example, New Hampshire Democrats had their biggest hold on power since the Reconstruction era. In 2010, New Hampshire Republicans had their biggest gains in state House seats in history.

New Hampshire was then dubbed “the swingiest state” in the country. As control for the US Senate remained tightly contested, the 2014 local contest between Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen and Republican challenger Scott Brown became the state’s most expensive contest ever. Two years later, that record was shattered by the race between Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte and Democratic challenger Maggie Hassan.

Here is the reality that even the biggest New Hampshire political junkie has to admit: Things are beginning to get boring and predictable. Democrats running for president have won the state six out of the last seven times and nine out of the last 11 elections for governor. While the nation saw Republicans getting a good result in the 2016 elections, New Hampshire voters elected, for the first time, an all-Democratic delegation to represent them in Washington.

There are pockets of interesting politics, like the future of Republican governor Chris Sununu, but, if history is any guide, he should be fine as a first-term governor seeking re-election in 2018.

In Maine, meanwhile, things are just heating up. The state’s Republican Party may be ascendant fighting back against a Democratic machine that has dominated politics. In 2018, the state could re-elect an independent to the US Senate and make its other senator a governor. And should US Senator Susan Collins run for governor, it would set up the largest scrambling of politics since 1980 with, potentially, a US Senate seat and both of the state’s Congressional seats up for grabs, prompting a trickle-down effect to a number of state Senate and mayoral races.

The impact of all of this might mean that, by 2024, the national media may train its focus on New Hampshire only for its presidential primary — and look immediately to Maine after that.

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