The 2020 election brought progressive victories all over the country, even in places you wouldn’t expect. Arizona and South Dakota legalized recreational cannabis. Florida now has a $15 minimum wage. In a less-than-progressive victory, Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States. Despite these wins, down-ballot Democratic candidates lost all over the place, resulting in dashed expectations for the Senate, sizeable House losses, and a very puzzled Democratic Party.
Why did so many Democratic candidates lose? How could the polls have been so wrong? The answer is obvious when you look at it, but you’ve got to actually look at it.
It can be easily seen in South Carolina, where, despite slightly trailing in the polls, Lindsey Graham easily crushed his opponent, Jaime Harrison. Even though Harrison became the first U.S. Senate candidate in history to surpass $100 million in fundraising, vastly outspending Graham, he somehow lost by more than 10 points. It seems so unlikely, until you consider South Carolina’s racist history, Graham’s own racism, and the fact that Harrison is a Black man.
During a televised campaign event, Graham said the quiet part quite loudly: “If you’re a young African American, an immigrant, you can go anywhere in the state, you just need to be conservative, not liberal.”
But that’s South Carolina. They’re obviously racist, right? What about here in Maine? It was a similar election. Democrat Sara Gideon was slightly ahead in polls, received a record amount in campaign donations, outspent Susan Collins 2-1 and still got absolutely obliterated, losing by nearly 10 points.
Collins never said anything in public as racist as Graham did, but she didn’t have to. Her campaign released a series of ads in which retired journalist Bill Green said it for her. In the ads, Green says Collins is a “county girl” and “from, of, and for the people of Maine.” He warns against “out-of-staters” and claims Collins represents Maine’s “tradition” and “way of life,” that she will “preserve our heritage.” This all brays louder than a dog whistle against Gideon, the non-white daughter of an Indian father and Armenian mother.
When they attempted to unravel the mystery of this election, journalists from the Bangor Daily News to the New York Times arrived at the same vague and elusive answer: “nativism.” The implication being that Mainers don’t trust people “from away.”
Of course, Collins didn’t attempt to use “nativism” against her white, Massachusetts-born opponent Shenna Bellows in 2014. And “nativism” certainly hasn’t hindered the former three-term Knox County state representative, ex-Maine Senate Majority Leader, and recent winner of a seventh term in the U.S. House of Representatives: Minnesota-born Chellie Pingree. “Nativism” somehow hasn’t stopped Pingree’s fellow blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Maine political colleague: the two-term Governor and second-term Senator, Virginia-born Angus King. “Nativism” certainly didn’t hurt King when he defeated Collins for the governorship in 1994.
There is a difference between nativism and racism. I know this personally. I was born in Maine. My mother was born here, as was her mother. In fact, my lineage in this state goes back to before the Revolutionary War. I’m from Maine since before it was a state, before there were states. But I’m Black, and that means every white person I meet asks where I’m from, then asks where I’m really from, repeatedly, until they somehow come to terms with a real-life Black Mainer.
Maine is the whitest state, and it has been kept this way deliberately. Black people lived on Malaga Island from the mid-1800s until they were forcibly removed in 1912. Their graves were even dug up in an attempt to erase any trace of their existence. Maine had places named Nigger Road, Nigger Brook, Nigger Hill and the like until 1977. Gerald Talbot, the first Black legislator in this state, had to undertake a gargantuan effort to change that.
Maine’s response to the election of Barack Obama was to elect Paul LePage, the loudest and most embarrassing bigot in the state, to the office of Governor — twice. This year, Black Lives Matter signs across the state have been stolen, vandalized and destroyed, and in not one instance was this legally deemed a hate crime. Although Maine has more than 150 Civil War monuments celebrating the Union, and claims it had the most men per-capita in the Union Army, Confederate flags are everywhere. It was only last year that the state banned Native American mascots, and there are still many places in Maine named using a slur against Native Peoples.
The point is, just like the rest of the country, Maine continues to have a whole lot of racism. Republicans thrive on racism, and until Democrats choose to fight it, they’re going to continue to lose. And to wonder why.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.