As Maine, along with the rest of the country, begins to slowly edge in to summer, we’re also beginning to slowly reopen our economy – despite the ongoing pandemic.
When she announced her reopening plan in late April, Gov. Mills originally envisioned keeping all of the state on roughly the same schedule. She quickly re-evaluated that approach, though, and decided to allow restaurants and retail establishments in less-affected rural counties to reopen earlier. Right now, that seems like the right call from both a political and a policy perspective: Most of the state doesn’t have community spread of the disease, and many counties have only a handful of cases.
Hopefully, Mills’ approach works, allowing Maine to gradually and safely resume economic activity.
If it doesn’t work out, the situation could become very complicated very quickly, not only for the state’s economy and public health but for its politics as well. Most of the political pressure on Mills has been to reopen more quickly, since Maine hasn’t been overwhelmed by the disease thus far. There haven’t been many people urging her to slow down her reopening plans from either side of the aisle: Her fellow Democrats have largely gone along with her, while both Republican legislators and conservative activists have pushed for a faster reopening.
That means that if her plan falters and Maine does see a resurgence following a reopening, Mills might take the blame for it, but it will be hard for many of her fellow politicians to attack her for it. In states with Republican governors who are listening to Trump’s advocacy for a quicker reopening, the political blowback is sure to fall squarely on the Republican Party, but that’s not the case here. While Mills might not be in the far left wing of her party, she’s hardly one to kowtow to President Trump. Regardless of where they align politically, no Democratic governor in the country is going to change their plans based solely on Trump’s advocacy.
If Maine reopens too quickly, it might not have much of an impact on this year’s elections at all. While voters might blame Mills for making the wrong decisions, she’s not going to be on the ballot, and the rest of the races are pretty much set. We already know who all of the major-party candidates will be in the primaries, and while candidates unaffiliated with a party don’t have to turn their signatures in until Monday, it’s far too late for anyone to be launching a new campaign. Some of those independents who make the ballot for legislative races could make an issue of it, but there aren’t likely to be many of them.
Where a failed reopening would have a greater political impact is on Mills’ re-election prospects in 2022. That race has already been upended by the pandemic, as Mills – like Trump – will almost certainly not be running for re-election on the basis of a booming economy. Before the pandemic, Trump frequently liked to take credit for the country’s economic prosperity. Now he won’t have that as a fallback position, making his already narrow path to a second term much more challenging.
Mills, similarly, was probably hoping that even if there were an economic downturn, it would happen sooner rather than later and be relatively short and mild, allowing the state to recover well before 2022. If that had been the case, or if there hadn’t been a recession at all, she could have run on her record of enacting a progressive agenda without hurting the economy. Now she faces the prospect of guiding the state through difficult economic times that will force her to re-think her budgeting priorities and possibly her whole approach to governing.
She’s sure to face criticism over spending and the economy from her eventual Republican opponent, no matter who that is. If there’s a resurgence of the disease, though, that might encourage the entry of an independent candidate who could not only criticize her for reopening the state too quickly, but also criticize both parties for mismanaging the crisis. All over the country, the pandemic and resulting economic downturn will have significant political impacts, but in a state as independent-minded as Maine, those impacts could be unpredictable indeed. Regardless of whether Maine recovers quickly from the pandemic and the recession, it’s sure to have lasting impacts on our politics for years to come that we can barely begin to fathom.
Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at:
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