Voters are worried about the economy but divided on who to hold accountable

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The economy was at the top of mind for voters in Maine’s Tuesday elections, but the results raised questions about how they will hold local figures accountable for it in November.

Republicans are hoping voters will extend blame from President Joe Biden, whose approval rating slid this week to the low point of his tenure at just above 39 percent nationally, to Gov. Janet Mills to congressional and legislative candidates who have looked slightly more durable in recent polling ahead of the primary election.

The first test of that strategy backfired when Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, easily won a special election for a Maine Senate seat in Hancock County over former Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, with nearly 64 percent of votes. Democrats outspent Republicans by nearly a 9-to-1 margin and Langley may have a better chance to win with higher turnout in November.

Democrats held that up as proof that sticking to local issues can overcome national ire. But rising inflation and costs are expected to persist into the fall as the Federal Reserve tries to slow inflation by hiking interest rates and stocks slide. State officials warned in April that energy prices would be the “greatest challenge for state revenues” if consumers could not keep up.

Voters focused most on economic issues while discussing the November matchup between Democrat Gov. Janet Mills and Republican former Gov. Paul LePage across Maine on Tuesday. Those wary of a LePage return argued Mills had handled the COVID-19 pandemic well.

“I like Gov. Mills. I’m very happy with her,” said Duane Scott, a retired independent from Augusta. “She’s had a tough couple of years.”

Contrast that with Charlene Gerrish, a former nurse and Republican from Scarborough who wants to vote out Mills. She said the economy would likely be a factor in a possible LePage victory, pointing to his former experience as a businessman.

“Things were better for us economically back then,” she said.

Former governor Paul LePage talks with Mike Smith from Bangor as he pumps gas for him during a campaign stop on May 18, 2022, at the Dysart’s on Broadway in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik

Republicans are looking to capitalize on those feelings by linking Mills and other Democrats to Biden, albeit with dated connections. One Maine GOP email congratulating former Rep. Bruce Poliquin on his 2nd Congressional District primary victory included a 2018 Biden quote endorsing Democratic Rep. Jared Golden’s first campaign for the office that year.

The two will face off in November after Golden has made some pointed votes against Biden’s agenda, including opposition to the  $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill and criticism that the president needs to engage with moderates more.

“You don’t want more long years of THIS, do you?” read a different fundraising email featuring a 2013 photo of Biden and Mills that congratulated LePage on securing the Republican nomination for governor. Both Mills and LePage were unopposed on Tuesday.

LePage, speaking outside the polls in his former home city of Waterville on Tuesday, said he had been hearing from voters about the economy, specifically the challenges that rising gas and fuel costs could pose come the colder months.

“Now that the checks have gone out, what are they going to do when fuel is at $7 this winter?” he said. “That’s the biggest thing I hear about right now.”

His comment refers to the $850 checks going to 850,000 Mainers that Mills made the centerpiece of her 2022 supplemental budget. The governor has pointed to them when questioned about how to combat rising economic uncertainty, while LePage broke with most Republicans in the Legislature to oppose them.

Gov. Janet Mills chats with Patti Burnett, the owner of Dom’s Barber Shop, during an informal walking tour of Hallowell on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Mills, who is seeking reelection, is being challenged by former Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, held up Grohoski’s victory as an example of how sticking to the issues could win locally over the “bullshit gas tax stuff” that Republicans incorporated into their campaign. (They called her “gas tax Grohoski” after she co-sponsored a carbon tax bill in 2019 that she and other Democrats quickly killed amid opposition from Mills.)

But he said people have the right to be frustrated about the economy and would be looking for accountability from leaders no matter which party is in office. All candidates and lawmakers can do then is focus on what they can change, Jackson said, pointing to efforts like one-time electricity credits and heating assistance to low-income households.

“It’s a great argument for people who aren’t incumbents to use because it’s infuriating,” Jackson said, referring to attempts to link Democrats to national issues. “I imagine for some people that’s going to play out because when people’s pocketbooks are attacked, they lash out.”

BDN writer David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.