Over the past year, Gov. Angus King has cloaked himself in a mantle of political invulnerability he clearly does not deserve. Actually, it is more accurate to say he has not resisted being cloaked by the wide-eyed among us — citizens, journalists, political operatives — who have transformed his low-impact, Mr. Rogers style of governance into record approval ratings. These folks, who span the socio-political spectrum, tend to believe with all their hearts that King is unbeatable in November. They haven’t been paying attention.
At least King himself appears to have the good taste and judgment not to believe this hype. His own 1994 campaign is a testament to a candidate’s ability to run a successful statewide race in Maine within a year of the election, provided he or she buys high-yield advertising time and makes skillful use of unpaid media (TV, radio and print news, Op-ed, etc.). He also knows much better than his True Believers that all’s not well with Maine’s undereducated, underemployed working people — 55 percent rural — who defy the state’s attempts to attract technology and manufacturing industries requiring skilled trades or sufficiently educated workers to retrain.
Statewide, nearly 5,000 workers were looking for a job in September 1997 who were employed one year before. In 1994, 9.4 percent, or 43,700 of Maine’s 465,000 households were below the poverty line. Today, 62,300 of those households live in poverty, with more than 35,000 of them receiving public assistance of some kind. In those three years, 3,000 children classed as “poor” joined 30,000 other children and 112,000 adults in the ranks of Mainers without health insurance. The occupancy of homeless shelters in the state increased 33 percent in the same period.
The U.S. Department of Labor has classified six of the state’s 16 counties “labor surplus areas,” meaning their average unemployment rate “was at least 20 percent above the average unemployment rate for all states during the previous two calender years.” In 1994, Aroostook, Oxford, Piscataquis, Somerset, Waldo and Washington counties accounted for 20 percent of the 511,000 votes cast in the gubernatorial election, so these forgotten counties are far from insignificant.
Like Bill Clinton in 1992, King in 1994 benefited vastly from a four-way race in which Susan Collins played the part of Ross Perot, polling 23 percent of votes cast, and Green Party candidate Jonathan Carter played Libertarian Andre Marrou, drawing 6.4 percent from a spectrum of Democrats, Republicans and Independents. King beat Joe Brennan by a plurality of only 1.6 percent, which translated to fewer than 8,200 votes. King gained more than 70 percent of those decisive votes in two of the eight counties he won: Androscoggin and Cumberland, respectively fifth and first among the highest turnout counties in 1994.
Androscoggin County’s Democrats and Republicans are apparently the likeliest in the state to split tickets, voting for another party’s candidate. In 1994, Democrats outnumbered Republicans three to one, yet only 47 percent of Democrats cast their votes for Brennan. More unusual, since Republicans traditionally turn out in higher numbers than Democrats, only 34 percent of registered Republicans voted for Collins. We may assume that Republicans turned out at least 50 percent, and that the remainder of Androscoggin’s GOP votes, or a minimum 2,500, went to King. (Since 1978 voter turnout in Maine’s gubernatorial elections has averaged 52 percent.)
The pattern held in Cumberland County, the linchpin of King’s victory: 58 percent of Democrats cast ballots for Brennan but, again, Republicans put King over here; 35 percent of Republicans came out for Collins. Assuming conservatively that Republicans in Maine’s most populous county also turned out at least 58 percent, then as many as 12,000 Cumberland Republicans may have voted for King.
Maine’s five highest-turnout counties — in order, Cumberland, York, Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin — accounted for 62 percent of total votes cast. Not counting “unenrolled” people of voting age, all have significant Democratic majorities of no less than 5 percent. Brennan won Kennebec and York with Democratic turnouts of at least 60 percent; Collins won Penobscot with 61 percent Republican turnout, against 48 percent Democratic.
Of the eight counties he won, four are Republican: Franklin, Knox, Lincoln and Waldo. If we add their vote totals to those from the five counties taken by Collins, we have accounted for but 37 percent of total votes cast.
Plainly, King is more formidable as an incumbent, and one who has a great storehouse of voter good will and is perceived as “successful,” than as a first-time candidate; but his inability to ramrod last year’s proposed Compact for Maine’s Forest demonstrates that, with all the good will in the world, Maine voters will not sacrifice visceral, deeply held positions at the alter of politics. The Democratic (and Republican) Party’s challenge is to batter King on elemental pocketbook and quality-of-life issues he has ignored for three years: traditional Democratic issues in a traditionally Democratic state; issues a talented advertiser could turn into public war cries. Then, purely and simply, register new voters and generate 70 percent turnout.
Of course, it would help immensely if either party could field a candidate with a grasp of the charismatic leadership King showed in 1994, which asserts that the issues affecting us most deeply combine our need for material well-being with the promise of a community nourishing to ourselves and our families: not Why Johnny Can’t Read, but How Will Jenny Live?
Between now and November, King’s record of non-achievement is vulnerable to a campaign that can successfully exploit the facts of Maine’s beached economy, which has driven nearly 20,000 families into poverty since 1994, and the beached hopes of Mainers who thought then that he represented something that valued them and made them better.
Paul L. Young of Portland is a former aide to Rep. Jose Serrano of the 16th District of New York and currently is organizing Rep. Tom Allen’s working group on race and culture.