What, and who, do the Democrats really want?

A couple weeks ago, I took a look at the Republicans looking to succeed Gov. Paul LePage in next year’s gubernatorial election.

The Democratic primary is, in many ways, a much more difficult one to handicap.

The Democratic Party, much like the Republican Party several years ago, is going through a bit of an identity crisis. Systematically over time, it has expunged its more moderate and centrist voices and has drifted further to the left toward a more progressive, Bernie Sanders-esque ideology.

Attorney General and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Janet Mills talks with voters during the Piscataquis County Democrats’ fall dinner on Oct. 14 at the East Sangerville Grange.

Many of the candidates running seem not to understand this simple fact. Candidates like Adam Cote, Janet Mills and Mark Dion all seem to be trying to cut a profile of a reasonable, moderate voice.

Key to their argument is the single most ineffective campaign talking point of all time: electability. “Vote for us,” they say, “because we can win in November.”

But to a party that increasingly wants to be a movement about radical ideas and a combative, oppositional defiant style of politics that defines The Resistance, “electability” is irrelevant. They want their heart to flutter, not to begrudgingly accept somebody they don’t actually like just because a political consultant tells them that they have a better chance to win.

Mills and Dion are also using another talking point that very few people ever care about in primaries: experience. “Vote for us,” they say, “because we’ve been in government and know what we’re doing.”

Again, this misreads the electorate. Universally across all parties, voters are increasingly rejecting the establishment, experienced figures in favor of those that rouse their passions.

John McCain tried the “steady, experienced hand” argument against Barack Obama in 2008. Here in Maine, Libby Mitchell tried the same against LePage in 2010. It never works. This is not what voters ultimately care about.

So who in the Democratic Party might actually excite the passions of the grassroots? Who might be able to take advantage of the desire to be part of a movement and a cause? Who can capitalize on resentment and anger on the left over eight years of LePage and at least four of Donald Trump?

Two candidates have any hope of really fitting that bill. Mark Eves, and Diane Russell.

Eves, the former House Speaker, is the far more polished of the two. He is extremely liberal (check), has a long history of fighting nasty battles with the governor (check), is young and well-spoken (check) and has all the right friends to raise a bucket of money (check).

Russell, a former state representative, is just as liberal (check), was a high-profile advocate for the marijuana legalization effort (check), has a massive grassroots email list (check) and can raise just as much money (check).

There are other candidates, of course — Jim Boyle, Betsy Sweet, Patrick Eisenhart — but none of them has demonstrated any substantial constituency yet, and likely won’t.

So where does that leave us?

As of today, the inside track favorite for the nomination would have to be Eves, much as it saddens me to say. He is the most recognizable liberal in the race, and the highest profile foil to LePage, which will both count for a lot.

Russell, on the other hand, came in third in a recent state Senate primary in a liberal Portland district, so her ability to convert money and email lists into votes for herself is yet to be proven. But, despite that, I wouldn’t downplay her as a candidate.

Cote, in my mind, is the most likely candidate to emerge from the more moderate wing of the party to stand in Eves’ way to the nomination. He is a young outsider to the political system, having never held elective office. He is an excellent speaker, and he can raise a very substantial amount of money.

Mills, in my mind, is a woman without a constituency. Every argument I hear in favor of her candidacy is one that doesn’t ever materialize into votes. She has experience. She is a “Second District candidate,” therefore she will automatically appeal to voters in the more rural parts of Maine. She has name identification. None of these things matter, and none of them provide a real base for a candidate.

Today, I foresee a nomination that ultimately boils down to Eves and Cote, and in that contest I think that Eves — sadly — represents what the Democratic Party actually wants, while Cote represents what they may have wanted 20 years ago.

But it is a long race yet, and this is but a snapshot in time. Things can, and probably will, change.

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.