Many political pundits believe only white voters will determine Senator Susan Collins’s reelection — whether white women in the suburbs or working-class white voters in northern Maine, where President Trump won in the 2016 election. Yet, as demonstrated by former Maine governor Paul LePage — a man who openly referred to people of color as “the enemy,” and worried about drug dealers named “D Money, Smoothie, and Shifty” coming to Maine to sell drugs and “impregnate a young white girl before they leave” — race is at the center of Maine politics.
There are many reasons why. Black Mainers suffer the largest COVID-19 disparities in America, had the highest poverty rate in 2014, and are over-represented by a factor of 12 in prison sentences. But with these disparities has come a growth in the size of Maine’s communities of color that positions these voters to have the potential to tip the scales in the Senate race this year for the first time ever.
Indeed, Maine’s racial transformation in the first decades of this century mirrors the changes caused by the Great Migration of Black people in the early 20th century. As political scientists like Keneshia N. Grant and Eric Schickler describe, Black migration from the rural South to the urban North caused a massive political realignment. Northern Democrats — historically tied to the party of slavery and the Jim Crow South — embraced civil rights to win the votes of Black northerners.
Yet in both relative and absolute numbers, like Maine’s changes today, the demographic shifts that triggered these political earthquakes seem small in modern terms. New York state, for example, had its Black population double from 1.5 percent to 3 percent between 1910 and 1930. During the same period, changes of a similar scale occurred in Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic states like Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. When communities of color grew to 3 to 5 percent of a state’s population overall, they created neighborhoods, altered school systems, held cultural space, and subsequently moved race from the periphery to the center of politics.
Similarly, between 2000 and 2020, Maine’s nonwhite population more than doubled, crossing the 5 percent line in 2010, when LePage took office. In the 1990s, bipartisan supermajorities of the Legislature had voted to include immigrant children in public assistance programs. By 2011, however, immigrant communities had grown enough for racial scapegoating to become a credible political strategy, playing off nativist fears of demographic change. Consequently, LePage and Democrats repealed the policies providing a safety net for immigrant children. Democrats — with full control of the legislative process today — have still not restored coverage. As Maine’s disparities in COVID, criminal justice, and poverty all attest, these policies have terrible consequences. Maine’s communities of color are ready for leaders who will chart a new path forward.
Following LePage’s 2014 reelection campaign, which centered on attacking immigrants, the New Mainer’s Alliance was formed to make endorsements and get out the vote. This year, the Wabanaki Alliance, a political organization of Maine’s native tribes, was formed in order to ensure a full renegotiation of the laws governing tribal sovereignty in Maine. Grassroots community organizations led by communities of color are mobilizing their service delivery networks to register new voters.
Of the more than 75,000 people of color, over 40,000 are citizens, with 21,000 registered to vote, and 11,000 who voted in the midterms. By contrast, competitive statewide races are routinely settled by a few thousand votes. Having performed constituent service work for Mainers of color over the years, Collins could be in a strong position to grab the vote of communities of color. At the same time, her challenger, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, a daughter of an Indian immigrant, could become the kind of champion who drives immigrants to become citizens, register, and turn out to vote at a scale that could become decisive in the race.
Political consultants who specialize in negative advertising are not articulating a positive vision of a multiracial society and appear to be pushing Collins to continue to oppose comprehensive immigration reform and stick by her nomination of arch-xenophobe Jeff Sessions as US Attorney General. Unfortunately, Gideon’s campaign has largely left race out of its top-line messages.
This is a strategic and ethical mistake. On the strategic side, it is far cheaper and more effective in a presidential election year to turn out new voters with a positive vision for the future than to waste millions on television chasing the support of a few thousand people already saturated by negative ads. In terms of ethics, the intersecting crises of the coronavirus and the killings of Black Americans lay bare the central inequities of our society. Indeed, there is nothing automatic about the political consequences caused by demographic changes. For a multiracial society to exist, our leaders must affirmatively articulate a vision, one worthy of our blood and tears. This year, expect voters of color to cast our ballots accordingly.
Ben Chin is deputy director of Maine People’s Alliance.