The 2014 Conifer Awards in Maine politics

Another year, come and gone.

As we bid farewell to 2014 and look ahead to 2015, let us mark this occasion by taking stock of where we’ve been and where we are, and looking ahead to what life will bring us in the New Year and beyond.

And so, dear reader, I give to you political superlatives, to mark the campaign and year that was, and get a glimpse into the future.

I present, the Conifer Awards for 2014.

Best Television Ad

This one goes to the Republican Governors Association, who could claim the award several times over for their efforts this year.

But it was the opening volley, the commercial that made use of direct to camera statements from several Mainers — including a gentleman with a handlebar mustache! — as well as the best bits from Gov. Paul LePage’s campaign kick-off speech, to set the tone for the race and reframe who the governor was.

One line in particular, LePage saying, “I’m not a smooth talkin’ politician,” did more to help his image and reelection than anything else in this campaign.

(Full disclosure, I worked for the RGA at the time and was involved in the production and promotion of that commercial.)

Most likely to be used as an example

Eric Brakey, for a stunning upset in a state Senate race against an entrenched incumbent of four decades. Eric’s focus on direct voter contact is already being used as a lesson for Republicans running in hostile territory and will be beaten into the heads of every candidate who runs in 2016.

Best Line of the Campaign

“Even a Frenchman can be taught to cool down,” by Paul LePage. It was hilarious, charming, and at that moment, Gov. LePage owned the entire debate crowd.

Worst Line of the Campaign

“Fire Gov. LePage,” by Mike Michaud. Here’s a pro-tip: when you are asked what your most important economic development idea is, try to articulate an idea. Any idea.

This one exchange highlighted for everyone the lack of developed policy ideas that Mike Michaud had and brought into question if he was really capable of being governor.

Most Unnecessary Apology

Eliot Cutler, apologizing for saying, “You ought to listen to this Mike, you might learn something” in a debate.

There is no doubt the comment was a bit snarky and gave his opponents ammunition to call him arrogant. But I am still baffled how this one phrase was so controversial. I actually laughed when Cutler said it and thought that it was a witty quip that communicated to the audience that Michaud was out of his league playing with the big boys on stage.

Biggest Mistake

There are so many contenders for this award, that narrowing down a single mistake as “the biggest” is difficult, but I’ll give it the old college try.

This one goes to Eliot Cutler, for not saying yes to Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant and running as a Democrat. In every single poll in this election, Cutler was a stronger matchup against LePage than was Michaud, and had he run as a Democrat, he could very well be the governor-elect right now.

Biggest Success

Without question, the decision by the LePage team and its allies to run on the issue of welfare reform. It was an issue that animated not only his base, but independents and Democrats across the state, particularly in Mike Michaud’s home congressional district.

Standout Political Operative

Brent Littlefield has more claim to this award than anyone else in the state. He was the strategist behind not only LePage’s re-election campaign, but also the stunning win for Bruce Poliquin in the 2nd District.

But Brent was already a well known standout before this year. His success in 2014 simply reconfirmed what we already knew.

Instead, this honor goes to David Sorensen, who served as the Republican Party’s communications director and, more than anyone, drove the day-to-day conversation about the race. His efforts not only helped his candidates win, but made a name for himself.

Most Likely to Become Governor Award

Let’s skip the people you already know might be governor next, and instead give it to somebody who you don’t know, and you might see run in the 2020s some time.

And so, this award goes to Jonathan LaBonte, the current mayor of Auburn and director of the Governor’s Office of Policy and Management. A fierce proponent of the Lewiston-Auburn area and its renewal, he is also at the helm of one of the most important offices in the LePage administration.

Beyond that, he is one of the most intelligent, studious policy experts in Maine government, and there is no doubt in my mind you’ll see him run for governor some day.

So there you have it, the 2014 Conifer Awards. I hope you and your family have a wonderful New Year.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.