Outrage isn’t enough: Lessons from Paul LePage’s Maine

In the lead up to last November’s election, I couldn’t quite shake the fear that Maine was playing the role of canary in the coal mine. In 2010, the blustering canary in question, Paul LePage, was elected governor with a mere 37.6% of the vote. Since then, his achievements as governor have consisted less of attracting jobs to the state and more of attracting undesired notoriety. As I watched the election returns come in on November 8th, 2016, it began to sink in that I would soon be living in a world where both my state and national government were run by right-wing blowhards with a propensity for bloviating a lot, and accomplishing little.

Maine politics does not exist in a vacuum. In hindsight, LePage was a harbinger of things to come in politics within, and beyond, Maine. This is a lesson that we would have done well to learn before the 2016 elections–and one that it is imperative we learn now. On the eve of a special election in Alabama to fill attorney general Jeff Sessions’ vacated senate seat, Democrats now have an opportunity to channel their outrage into meaningful political action.

Much the same as Donald Trump, Paul LePage began his tenure in office without a popular mandate. He made a name for himself in his campaign as a crass and blundering Average Joe, free from the grasp of those pesky Wall Street millionaires. Six years before Donald Trump’s election, LePage had already weaponized a nebulous concept of populism in order to court, and eventually win, the votes of many Mainers.

And much like the first several months of the Trump administration, LePage proved himself in office to be very much the same man he was on the campaign trail. He began his first term by creating a controversy over a mural depicting the history of Maine workers in the state’s Department of Labor building. Instead of pursuing meaningful legislative action to improve the long-stagnate economy, he decided to manufacture a controversy through which he could further galvanize his supporters.

The mural incident became the first, and perhaps least egregious, in a long line of controversies for Governor LePage. There was the “the NAACP ‘can kiss my butt’” incident, the infamous “D-Money, Smoothie, and Shifty” comments, and my personal favorite, that time he called a state legislator a “cock-sucker” and then challenged him to a duel. All of these incidents were met with justifiable outrage. Calls for impeachment have been a regular feature of the LePage administration. Yet, through it all, he has kept his job (including winning reelection) while suffering zero meaningful repercussions.

While the LePage administration has done little to improve the lives of Mainers, he has certainly taught us all a valuable lesson: conservative elected officials in this country enjoy near-impunity. The standard of professionalism that so many people in this country are held to in their workplaces simply does not seem to apply to politicians. And while outrage is of course an appropriate reaction to many of these incidents, it’s time we realize that alone, it is not an effective response. The job now for Democrats is to harness that outrage and channel it into a winning strategy.

This November’s election results were a heartening example of just that. In addition to a landslide victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race, Democrats had a strong showing down ballot in the various House of Delegates campaigns. In Maine, a referendum question approving the expansion of Medicaid won by nearly twenty points — a stunning rebuke of Republican talking points about the unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats are now faced with perhaps their greatest test yet in the post-Trump political era. In Alabama, a special election on December 12th will decide who takes Session’s seat in the Senate. In the balance is the opportunity for Democrats to narrow their deficit to just one seat. After defeating the establishment candidate Luther Strange in the primaries, Republican Roy Moore is now facing credible allegations from multiple women of sexual misconduct — including minors in at least two cases. There is no shortage of outrage at these allegations, but will that translate into a victory in a deep red state? Polls show the race tightening, but not necessarily enough to push Democrat Doug Jones to a victory.

The GOP’s noncommittal response to Moore’s candidacy is an unmistakable parallel to its support of then-candidate Donald Trump just last year. As the fight over tax reform intensifies, Republicans are reassessing their previous calls for Moore to withdraw from the race in order to ensure that the current two-seat GOP majority in the Senate holds. After initially disavowing Moore, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proclaimed Sunday that it would be up to Alabama voters to decide whether he should represent them in the US Senate. Senator Susan Collins of Maine expressed her hope that Moore would not win, but refused to commit to expelling him from the Senate if he were to be elected. On Monday morning, President Trump himself broke his semi-silence on the matter, explicitly endorsing Moore in a series of tweets. Ultimately, the Republican Party’s refusal to condemn morally reprehensible behavior signifies a tacit endorsement of those behaviors.

It seems that with each passing day, then-candidate Trump’s infamous remark that he could “shoot somebody and not lose voters” becomes more prophetic. At what point will Republican politicians (and voters) draw the line? What degree of moral or criminal misconduct is severe enough to convince the GOP that there are some candidates who are not worthy of their endorsement, no matter how necessary their vote may be for passing tax reform?

With the federal government completely in the hands of the Republicans, it is more important than ever that Democrats be engaged with local politics. On the same day as the showdown in Alabama, a mayoral runoff election in Lewiston will present some Mainers with the opportunity to do just that. After winning 42 percent of the vote on November 9th, Democrat Ben Chin will face Lewiston city councilor Shane Bouchard in the runoff election. Perhaps, by turning the political tide at the community level, Maine can once again trigger a wider political phenomenon.

One thing is clear — we cannot stand by and do nothing but hope that our moral outrage will be echoed in election results. Democrats must invest time, money, and effort into galvanizing their base to win more of these long-shot victories. The lesson learned in Maine is now (hopefully) being learned nationwide: we live in a society where morality has fallen by the wayside of partisanship. Outrage won’t save us if we don’t show up. Showing up is the real resistance.

President Donald Trump and Maine Governor Paul LePage. (Photos: Gage Skidmore/creative commons; Matthew Gagnon/Wikimedia commons)

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