The stakes of the 2014 midterm elections, as many have noted, seem awfully low. Yes, control of the Senate is up for grabs, but there’s only so much Republicans will be able to accomplish in the face of the veto and filibuster. As my own colleagues have pointed out, this is an overly sanguine view of the matter. But the tendency to underplay the election is especially misplaced when it comes to races for governor and state legislature. Consider Maine, where a new development in the race for governor may well have just won some 70,000 people health coverage.
Maine’s current governor is Paul LePage, a Republican elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave whose defining legacy—even more than outrageous comments such as telling the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” saying President Obama “hates white people” and comparing the IRS to the Gestapo—will be his profound antipathy to the social safety net that so many people rely on in Maine, New England’s poorest state. As the Wall Street Journal recently summarized, LePage, a former millworker who was the eldest of 18 children in an abusive home and a teenage runaway, “pushed for new laws that required drug testing for certain beneficiaries linked to drug crimes and created stricter income limits on childless workers who collected Medicaid. He also let a food-stamp waiver expire, a move that effectively terminates benefits for able-bodied childless workers after three months. His changes to food stamps, Medicaid and cash-assistance programs helped cut the beneficiary rolls from recent peaks by 11%, 12%, and 56%, respectively.”
And he has vetoed—not once, but thrice—the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which would cover nearly 70,000 people in the state—that is, more people than live in Portland, the state’s largest city. This explains Maine’s remarkable singularity on the lower of these two eye-catching maps, where it stands out as the only state in New England with large numbers of uninsured.
How did Maine, a state that went for Barack Obama by more than 15 points in 2012, elect such a person as its governor? By a fluke. LePage got only 38 percent of the vote in 2010, but that was enough to win, as Democrats split their votes between Eliot Cutler, a wealthy businessman running as an independent, and Libby Mitchell, the Democratic state Senate president.
And as cringe-inducing as LePage’s tenure has been for a state known for a more sober form of politics, it’s been looking like LePage might just pull a repeat. Cutler is running again this year alongside a different Democrat, Congressman Mike Michaud. Cutler’s drawing less support than he got in 2010, when he far surpassed Mitchell, but he’s been getting more than enough to pose a real problem for Michaud: a Portland Press-Herald poll released over the weekend found LePage getting 45 percent to Michaud’s 35 percent, with Cutler drawing 16 percent. As averse as Maine liberals are to see LePage reelected, many simply have felt more drawn to Cutler than to Michaud, himself a former millworker who is more conservative than Cutler on abortion, gun rights, and other issues. (Michaud came out as gay last year, yet even national gay rights groups have been ambivalent about backing him over Cutler.) After months of LePage's being declared one of the most endangered governors in the country, his prospects were improbably looking up.
Until Wednesday. At a morning press conference, Cutler sent a cryptic message that, while far short of a resignation from the race, was taken by many as a hint that it was time for his supporters to put beating LePage above all else. “I truly believe in democracy and the ultimate authority of voters to vote for whomever they want for whatever reason and I don’t think any voter, whether a supporter of mine or not, now needs or ever has needed my permission or my blessing to vote for one of my opponents,” Cutler said. “Nevertheless, I want to reiterate what I said six months ago: Anyone who has supported me but who now worries that I cannot win and is thereby compelled by their fears or by their conscience to vote instead for Mr. LePage or Mr. Michaud should do so.”
If this message was a bit too ambiguous for the liking of some Michaud supporters, it was given a whole lot more clarity later in the day. Angus King, the highly popular former governor and now U.S. senator who is an independent but caucuses with the Democrats in Washington, announced that he was switching his endorsement from Cutler to Michaud. “Like Eliot, I too am a realist. After many months considering the issues and getting to know the candidates, it is clear that the voters of Maine are not prepared to elect Eliot in 2014,” King said. “The good news is that we still have a chance to elect a governor who will represent the majority of Maine people: my friend and colleague, Mike Michaud. And today, I’d like to offer him my support….This was not an easy decision, but I think the circumstances require that those of us who have supported Eliot look realistically at the options before us at this critical moment in Maine history.”
This was surely not an easy concession for Cutler (and secondarily King) to make, but they deserve credit for acknowledging, if somewhat belatedly, where things were heading. Politics is about real people, and in the case of Maine, starkly so. Tens of thousands of low-income Maine residents are far more likely to get a lot more economic security as a result of what happened on this one day.
*This article has been updated to reconcile two different estimates given for the number of Mainers expected to be covered under a Medicaid expansion.