Republican Paul LePage managed to eek out a victory in Maine’s gubernatorial race—a huge tea party triumph in one of the last outposts of moderate Republicanism. LePage had been leading for months by double-digits in the polls, but faced a stiff challenge from Independent Eliot Cutler, a former Democrat*, who closed the gap at the last minute. But LePage, who drew tremendous support from a tea party-backed grassroots movement, pulled it off—38 to Cutler’s 36.7 percent—to become the state’s first Republican governor in over a decade.
Cutler was emblematic of the kind of socially and fiscally moderate outlook that long characterized Maine politics—embodied in leaders like Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. LePage, by contrast, campaigned as an unapologetically right-wing conservative who bashed global warming, welfare, and taxes in equal measure. In the final months of the campaign, LePage lashed out in a series of public ragefests that threatened to derail his candidacy as his opponents tried to portray him as an unhinged extremist. But LePage had built a grassroots army from the very beginning of his campaign and successfully capitalized upon his rough-hewn appeal and rags-to-riches biography, as I explained in my recent piece on his campaign.
And LePage wasn’t the only Republican upset in Maine last night: the GOP took over both the state House and Senate for the first time since in nearly three decades. The conservative revolt will not only strength LePage’s hand as governor, it will also put moderate members like Snowe and Collins on serious notice. Snowe, for one, is far more popular with Democrats and Independents in the state than Republicans, half of whom think she should become a Democrat. There’s growing speculation that Snowe could consider switching parties to become an Independent. Snowe’s already picked up a 2012 primary challenger and, judging by last night’s revolt, she’s doubtlessly thinking about her own survival.
*Correction: An earlier version of this post said Cutler as a former Republican. He is a former Democrat.