The seven Democratic candidates vying to replace Gov. Paul LePage next year made their case Saturday to the party faithful during a heavily attended Democratic state convention.
The term-limited LePage was mentioned repeatedly. Some candidates highlighted their conflicts with him, while others attempted to walk a line between criticizing his policies without dwelling on the man who has handed Democrats several policy and electoral defeats, while dominating Maine’s political landscape for nearly eight years.
Attorney and military veteran Adam Cote focused on the governor’s failures while mentioning him by name just once. Instead, Cote, often deviating from his prepared remarks to engage with the crowd, also touted a slate of policy initiatives that resonate with Democratic voters, including paid family leave, gun control, teacher pay and clean energy.
“I have a broad track record of leadership experience in local government, business, energy,” he said. “I’ve had three combat tours that will make it much harder for Republicans. They won’t be able to play games with me.”
He also talked about his ability to win in November.
“We have to win this,” he said. “ And I tell ya, if I’m the nominee, we’re going to win.”
Each speaker was given ten minutes to address the convention. Some used videos to introduce themselves, including Attorney General Janet Mills, a frequent combatant with LePage.
Mills, frequently regarded as the front-runner in the primary contest, attempted to strike a unifying tone in her speech.
“Let us reject the politics of fear and division and embrace the politics of trust, hope and love,” she said.
Former House Speaker Mark Eves, a family therapist, decided to let several supporters speak on his behalf, before addressing the convention.
“If there is ever a time that we need a family therapist it’s after eight years of Paul LePage,” Eves said to applause.
Several of the candidates also addressed their perceived general election weaknesses.
Hallowell resident Betsy Sweet attempted to play-up her lobbying experience in Augusta, while casting herself as an outsider. She also targeted critics who say she’s too liberal to win a statewide race.
“Politics is different now. What worked in the 1990s will not work in 2018,” she said. “Voters don’t want cautious, poll-driven candidates. They want someone bold and who is real.”
State Sen. Mark Dion, of Portland, told the convention that he doesn’t have the money and poll-tested message of his competitors. But he said his campaign is gaining momentum because it’s not just telling Mainers what they want to hear.
“If we are going to win in November we must reject our dependence on money,” he said. “Too many in Augusta are too scared of losing campaign contributions to do anything truly courageous.”
Former Portland legislator Diane Russell began her speech by asking the crowd, “Are you ready to never have to say ‘Gov. LePage again?’”
She concluded with a fiery pronouncement.
“I fight like girl, I am your warrior and I am asking to be your commander in chief when the (expletive) hits the fan. And it will hit the fan.”
Biddeford resident Donna Dion was unable to attend the convention and used a video to highlight her experience in Biddeford town government.
Maine Democrats are hoping a progressive wave of disenchantment with President Donald Trump will energize enough voters during midterm elections that dealt withering blows to national Democrats over the last decade. In Maine, the stakes are high: the governor’s race, a 2nd Congressional District seat that’s swung Democrat and Republican over the past 20 years, and a Legislature that’s currently experiencing D.C.-style gridlock and partisanship.
National Democrats believe Trump will mobilize their voters in November. But Maine Democrats worry their experience with LePage, a deeply controversial figure who has weathered several controversies, is currently being replicated in a chaotic Trump presidency.
Party chairman Phil Bartlett told the convention Saturday that it’s easy to blame Republicans and LePage for the current headwinds facing the progressive agenda.
“But we can’t chalk up our losses to bad luck,” he said, adding that the party needs to better communicate its message and values to voters.
“We have a historic opportunity,” he said.
Maine Democrats also know their national counterparts will need more than Trump’s chaotic administration and controversial statements to have sustained electoral victories.
LePage’s first two years in office and resulting controversies helped Democrats retake the Legislature in 2012. But the embattled governor won reelection in 2014 and Republicans captured the state Senate.
Over 1,300 registered Democrats pre-registered for the convention, according to party officials. However, attendance climbed higher than that during Saturday’s events that included activist workshops, candidate speeches and a debate over the party’s policy platform.
The convention is set to conclude Sunday. The primary elections will be held June 12 as Maine voters will be the first in the country to use a landmark ranked-choice voting system.