The Maine House of Representatives today voted (89-57) to enact L.D. 1020, also known as the Equal Marriage Act, which essentially would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in the Pine Tree state. Late last week the Maine Senate also passed the bill, and it is widely expected that Governor John Baldacci will sign it.
The only thing that can potentially stop same-sex marriage coming to Maine at this point is the "people's veto" - a Constitutional mechanism that allows the voters of the state to reject a law passed by the legislature.
This means that Maine is about to see a very "Proposition 8" style campaign come to their back yards, and are about to be inundated with commercials, phone calls, websites and door-knocking activists lobbying for a yes or no on a veto.
But more than that, for the first time in a long time, it will provide a chance to watch how a social wedge issue impacts politics in the northeast.
Maine, contrary to popular national opinion, is hardly a monolithically blue state. Its not a red state either mind you - it is a gray state. In other words, it can easily swing Republican or Democrat or Independent, depending on any number of factors. Yes, its voted Democrat for President since Clinton, and yes it hasn't had a Republican Governor since Jock McKernan left in 1995, but that is hardly an indication of anything other than recent macro trends. As recently as 2004, Republicans were within two members of capturing the Maine House, and have routinely been divided very closely in the Maine Senate.
If you want a good example of just how volatile politics in a northeastern state like Maine can be, just look at maps for the last several gubernatorial elections. You'll see that anyone can win basically any county, any time given the right personality and message:
The question is, what kind of Republican can win in Maine? What role will social issues have on the Maine House and the Maine Senate?
Some Republicans, like Senator Peter Mills, are of the mind that a limited government message can win in Maine, but social issues are not going to move votes. Mills voted with the majority to enact the Equal Marriage bill, and is obviously positioning himself as an "independent" or a "moderate" for a run at the Blaine House in 2010.
His opinion was likely reinforced by the fact that he narrowly lost to Chandler Woodcock, an ardent social conservative, who then went on to lose handily to a rather unpopular Democratic opponent who many Maine observers feel would have lost to Mills had he been the nominee.
But there are others who believe that issues such as gay marriage will be able to galvanize the social conservatives in Maine to actually vote for a Republican. Maine Democrats can often appeal to social conservatives (Second District Congressman Mike Michaud, for example, is pro-life), and many Republicans feel this will provide a chance to break off some of those who identify as conservative and capture them into the GOP camp - after all, many of those Maine Democrats talk like they are socially conservative, but legislatively act much differently.
It will certainly be an interesting state to watch. Maine is not on anyone's radar, is not deemed a toss up, and is given little attention by the national press. That may all change, however, as the push to approve a people's veto of the Equal Marriage bill highlights the conflicting nature of politics in the northeast. Never let national talking points convince you that any state is simply one party's territory - grassroots politics is a lot deeper than that simplistic view of geographic regions.
Will this issue lead to a social conservative resurgence and allow the GOP to regain some of its lost footing? Will it force much of the GOP to break off into a more libertarian mold, either indifferent or supportive of gay marriage? Will this divide Democrats, or Republicans more?
Fascinating questions we will have to watch unfold to truly understand.
Full Disclosure: The author is a former resident of Maine who ran for the Maine House of Representatives in 2004. As a libertarian-Republican, he also supports the Equal Marriage Act.