by GEORGIA BRAINARD, for the Sun Gazette
As I watched NBC’s Steve Kornacki try to explain the sea of red flooding Virginia’s election maps on Nov. 2, a familiar feeling set in.
A predicted easy win by Democrat Terry McAuliffe had been thwarted.
Political analysts began their explanations, with many eventually settling on a certain narrative: Republican Glenn Youngkin had succeeded in uniting voters around a local issue – education – while McAuliffe had alienated them by appealing to the national issue of Donald Trump.
This is nothing new for Democrats. One year before, I watched that same wave of on-air confusion as the 2020 Senate election results from Maine trickled in. Another close race, it was similarly clear early on that it would not be the Democratic sweep the polls had once predicted.
After leading in the polls for months and despite Joe Biden going on to win the state handily, fellow Democrat Sara Gideon lost the U.S. Senate race by almost 10 percentage points to 23-year GOP incumbent Susan Collins.
McAuliffe in 2021 lost by making the same mistake as Gideon in 2020: both candidates over-nationalized a local race by incessantly tying their opponents to Trump and Senate Republicans. In contrast, Republicans localized the race, keeping Trump at arm’s distance publicly while focusing voters on tangible issues at home.
In both races, the Democrats ran more on what they were against – Trump – than on what they supported. Not only did this strategy fail to energize voters, but in Maine, it backfired altogether.
Gideon’s constant invocations of national politics only reinforced voters’ concern that Democrats cared more about winning a Senate majority than about improving the well-being of Maine.
I experienced the situation in Maine first-hand. After landing a job with a grassroots-organizing firm that campaigned for Gideon, I moved up to Portland.
When Collins’s seat went up for election in 2020, Democrats seized the opportunity to capitalize, seeing the state as key to their hopes of winning the Senate. I joined the campaign with the same hope.
Driving around the solidly-blue Portland suburbs, Biden yard signs far outnumbered Trump ones and “Bye-Bye Susan” bumper stickers graced the trunk of every Subaru I saw. Armed with pounds of anti-Collins leaflets and plenty of hubris, I set out to flip the Senate.
It didn’t take much door-knocking for my naivety to become apparent. While my initial routes had kept me within the pro-Gideon bubble of Portland, I encountered more opposition the further I ventured.
It was a lovely autumn day – 40 degrees and pouring rain – when the first voter stumped me. Upon seeing an NRA flag draped across the door, I nearly turned around. But remembering my mission, I took a deep breath, knocked and was met by exactly what I had pictured (an older man with a long beard) holding exactly what I hadn’t (a tiny Chihuahua in a diaper).
The man had barely cracked the door when I began to recite my script: “A vote for Collins is a vote for Trump! Susan Collins isn’t the same senator we elected 23 years ago…”
When I finally finished rambling, the man sighed, pointing to my out-of-state plates in the driveway and retorting with a slightly amused, “We?”
In the discussion that followed, I found myself unable to counter almost any point he made. He was most skeptical about Gideon’s being “from away,” as in not originally from Maine, and about her campaign being funded by out-of-state bigwigs who saw Maine as nothing more than a seat in the national tug-of-war. My very presence on his doorstep only reinforced this concern.
While I could pontificate all day about the dangers of a Republican-controlled Senate, I found that I could offer this voter no concrete evidence that Gideon was any better for Maine than Collins. By the end of our discussion, I wasn’t so sure myself.
This phenomenon played out across the state. Gideon’s ads skewed national, positioning herself as the savior of Democrats’ hopes for the Senate majority while handcuffing Collins to Trump and Mitch McConnell. Collins’s response was to stay local, touring the state to remind voters of what she had accomplished in her 23 years.
In fact, Gideon’s messaging played right into Collins’s hands: Collins was able to deflect her opponent’s attacks, using them as evidence that the Rhode Island-born Gideon had the interests of Senate Democrats at heart, not those of Mainers.
By Election Day, even once-fervent Gideon supporters seemed to have lost their patience and, with it, their support.
I was one of them. In the last week before Election Day, I requested to be taken off the doors. I felt like I was doing more harm than good.
I was happily reassigned to ballot-curing duty, which mostly consisted of helping seniors re-cast their votes after failing to properly fill in the bubbles. It was the most fulfilling work I did on the campaign; I got to help well-informed citizens follow through on their votes instead of forcing my beliefs onto them. In a state where Democrats had only recently surpassed independents as the largest voting bloc, I had been naïve to think I knew better than the voters themselves.
When Mainers hit the polls and almost 20 percent split their tickets between Biden and Collins, they made their stance clear: local politics win local elections.
If Virginia is any indication, Democrats have not learned their lesson. McAuliffe’s campaign attempted the same handcuffing strategy against Youngkin. Only this time, Trump wasn’t even on the ballot.
A similar outcome unfolded, as McAuliffe lost a state Biden had won by 10 points just a year before.
If Democrats hope to win back these margins in the midterms next year, they would do well to remember Maine and Virginia. Give people something to vote for, not just against.
Georgia Brainard earned a degree from the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service in May 2020. After graduation, she spent the fall campaigning for Sara Gideon for U.S. Senate in Maine. Since then, she has worked as a communications associate at the International Economic Development Council in Washington, D.C., and as a writer for her local shoreline Connecticut newsletter.