A new book by state Sen. Chloe Maxmin and her campaign manager Canyon Woodward has drawn much attention in Maine and around the US. In their book, “Dirt Road Rival,” Maxmin and Woodward argue that Democrats have largely “forsaken” rural voters. Some Democrats are pushing back, noting that their party controls the governor’s office and both chambers if the Legislature. Here, Julia Brown, who ran the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, offers her take. Brown’s column was originally published on her Medium page.
The trope that Democrats are wildly out-of-touch with rural America is hardly groundbreaking. It’s a line that appears repeatedly in the nation’s largest newspapers, like the one written by Maine State Senator Chloe Maxmin in this week’s New York Times. This may be a fair argument in other parts of the country but it doesn’t reflect my experience nor the reality in Maine.
To be clear, many of the strategies and call-to-action put forward by Senator Maxmin are valid and important. As the campaign director for the Senate Democrats in 2020, I campaigned hard for her. But I don’t understand why she needs to tear down the other successful rural candidates, campaigns, and volunteers to spread her message.
Right now in the Maine Senate, Democrats hold the largest majority held by either party in over 30 years. This was only possible by winning rural and non-rural senate districts and earning the support of both Biden and Trump voters. The real question in Maine isn’t about how Democrats have lost rural America. The question is: how did Maine Senate Democrats win back rural voters and regain their trust?
It wasn’t some messiah with an “only-I-can-fix-it-attitude” that made the Maine Senate Democrats one of only two legislative chambers in the country to pick up seats in 2016. That didn’t secure us back-to-back historic majorities in 2018 and 2020 either. Put simply, it was the one thing that makes Maine run: neighbors talking to neighbors about the future of this state. It’s how we won races in every corner of the state, with candidates knocking on doors and meeting voters — Democratic, Independent, and Republican — where they were.
Secretary of State Shenna Bellows is a perfect example. Before becoming Maine’s first female Secretary of State, she represented a district that went handily to Trump. In fact, she flipped the seat in a terrible year for Democrats nationally, winning the district by ten points even with Trump on the ballot. Over and over again, it became clear that she won the seat by knocking the doors and serving her constituents regardless of their party affiliation.
Senator Ned Claxton, a retired physician from Auburn, also defeated a Republican legislative leader, flipping the seat in 2018. He won by knocking doors and having honest conversations and that didn’t change once he was in office. His community coalesced around him building the largest campaign apparatus in Senate history.
Then there are incumbents who have proven their ability to split tickets over and over again, like Senate President Troy Jackson, a fifth-generation logger from Allagash, Maine, who won his seat in 2020 with almost 60 percent of the vote compared to President Trump’s 55 percent.
Over the last three campaign cycles, State Senate candidates and their teams have knocked over 300,000 doors. More than half of these conversations were with Republican and Independent voters. It’s why I’m so offended by claims that Senate Democrats do not talk with Republicans — it is a flat out lie. In fact, how Senate Democrats talk to voters has been vital to our success cycle after cycle.
More importantly, once elected, these majorities, driven by rural victories, put resources right back into their communities. They deliver on property tax relief, keep rural health care options open for veterans, and fund schools to ensure that all Mainers get a quality education, regardless of zip code.
Here’s my main concern following Senator Maxmin’s assertions and revisionist history: it takes an immense amount of economic privilege to run a full-time campaign in a rural area the way she did. While it’s great that Senator Maxmin was able to forgo having a traditional job, the truth is few Mainers will ever have the luxury she has to campaign full-time for a role that pays less than $15,000 a year. Nor can most Mainers pay a cadre of Harvard-educated friends from outside the state to help.
Senator Maxmin’s playbook for rural campaigning leads Democrats into a dangerous trap. By lumping all rural Mainers (and Americans) into one category, she insists the pathway to winning votes in a blue-leaning coastal community is the same pathway that wins votes in a rural community in the midwest. This one-size-fits-all approach is how Democrats lose a long-term rural strategy.
Criticizing the party that elected you is noteworthy. But it’s certainly less so when it happens after leaving office for a book tour. It’s more bold to take stock of how you were helped, the privilege that got you there, and recognize the thousands of Mainers who made winning possible.
There are a lot of Mainers who deserve credit for making our historic majority possible by supporting Senator Maxmin and the rest of our extraordinary candidates. So, I’m going to use my voice to amplify some of our rural champions. Thank you to all the volunteers and ally organizations who built coalitions to knock doors. Thank you to the thousands of voters who took a moment away from life, family, and work to cast a vote.
Democrats have a lot of work to do. I know we made mistakes — most campaigns and political organizations do. And we shouldn’t be immune to criticism. But if there is one thing to take from Maine, it’s that there is no one hero coming to save the day. Just ordinary people coming together to make their community stronger.
Julia Brown is the former Executive Director of the Maine Senate Democratic Campaign Committee and is now taking a break from politics to help fill Maine’s emergency need for frontline healthcare workers.