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Downeast Is Red

The revival of the Maine GOP.

Feb 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 20 • By CONRAD KIECHEL
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New Sharon, Maine

Downeast Is Red

Gary Locke

The Top of the Hill Grill here is 65 miles away from the coastal summering hole and old-money hangout of Boothbay Harbor​—​and a world apart. Stop by for breakfast, and you’ll be surrounded by guys in blaze orange, retired couples who get their blueberry muffins toasted, and an oil burner repairman who moonlights as the Karl Rove of the Maine GOP. I’m here a few weeks after the November elections to find the remarkable story behind an improbable headline in the New York Times: “Overnight, Maine Turns Red.” For the first time since 1964, Maine Republicans captured the governorship, the senate, and the house​—​a trifecta made possible, boasts GOP mastermind Charlie Webster as he chews on his ham and cheese omelet, because “we represent the working people” and were able to convince voters of this.

Sixty years ago, Maine and New Hampshire shared more than a border and their Yankee heritage. Their per-capita income was similar, and so was state government spending as a share of the state’s economy. But, starting with Maine’s decision to impose a sales tax in 1951, two roads diverged in a fiscal wood. In the decades since, the Granite State has not imposed a personal income or sales tax, while Maine has taken the road of higher taxes and greater regulation. And that has made all the difference for the two states’ economies. 

By 2009, the share of personal income that Maine residents receive from all government sources was over 36 percent; for New Hampshire, the figure was only 24 percent. As Tarren Bragdon, the baby-faced CEO of the free-market Maine Heritage Policy Center, explains, “Every time there was an opportunity to choose between self-sufficiency and dependence, the state chose dependence. And at the same time you had an increasing social safety net, you had increased hostility toward small business and entrepreneurs.”

The results include: no private job growth in a decade, a ranking by Forbes as America’s least business-friendly state, and an increase in welfare dependence such that nearly one of three Mainers receives some form of government assistance. As newly inaugurated governor Paul Le-Page sums up the preconditions for the GOP victory: “High taxes, unreasonable regulation, high unemployment .  .  . and the stars were aligned.”

A few political groundswells helped move those stars into position. In 2006, antitax forces led by longtime citizen activist Mary Adams, a grandmotherly, northwoods Grover Norquist, succeeded in placing a Taxpayer Bill of Rights initiative before Maine voters. The proposal would have capped any increase in state and local government spending by the amount of inflation and population growth unless voters approved it directly. 

The initiative went down to defeat ​—​290,000 votes to 247,000​—​with considerable spending by special interest groups that opposed it. But the message of limiting government was heard​—​a tocsin sounded again when Bragdon’s think tank sponsored a second, also unsuccessful vote on a Taxpayer Bill of Rights. 

Then in June 2009, the Democratic legislature passed a package of tax changes that would have lowered the top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent, while creating 102 new taxes, chiefly on services, such as auto repair and dog grooming. 

It sounded to some like a reasonable reform; even the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page weighed in favorably. But GOP state chairman Charlie Webster saw an opening wide enough to drive his 1997 Ford pickup through. Webster saw the new taxes as essentially a tax on labor and working people. The exchange amounted to “trading a temporary cut in income tax for permanent addition of new taxes.” In Maine, acts of the legislature can be forced to a referendum if opponents are able to garner enough signatures. “We got 70,000 signatures in 70 days,” Webster says. The tax package would be put to a statewide vote in June 2010​—​the same day as the party primaries. 

Webster put his pedal to the metal. Driving around the state, he set about the task of recruiting Republicans to contest each of the state’s 186 legislative districts. He wanted hairdressers, plumbers, homemakers. “We looked at some who had no experience in elective office but were leaders in the community.” Webster recruited a half-dozen small business candidates by telling them the new taxes would put them out of business. “We would say, ‘This is where we are, this is where we’re going,’ and ask if they were happy with that.” 

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