Sitting in a coffee shop off Route 1 in Yarmouth, Zak Ringelstein was tweeting at the Portland Press Herald. They had just endorsed his opponent. Narrating his response to the room, he said the Herald had said he was too radical.
Ringelstein, 32, is the Democratic Party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate and is in the midst of a long-shot bid to unseat Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Ringelstein, who comes with an endorsement from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), won an uncontested Democratic Party primary back in June.
This formal nomination, however, has yielded little in the way of substantive support from the state party. Instead, he says that, the party has a “pay-to-play” model for its candidates.
“They’ve asked me to spend $100,000 of my own campaign money—mind you I’m not taking corporate, PAC, lobbyist or fossil fuel money—to get on their literature, to be named,” he said.
Maine has voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1988. Because of the unusual way the state apportions its electors, Trump did win one electoral vote in 2016 even though Hillary Clinton won a plurality of the total votes. Nevertheless, the party controls no statewide offices. Maine hasn’t had a Democratic senator in Washington since George Mitchell ’54 in 1995.
“The state party should take responsibility for that,” said Ringelstein. “They are not working with the people. They’re working with their donor table. A few very elite, wealthy individuals who want more money.”
While Ringelstein lives in Yarmouth with his wife, Leah, and two young children, one of whom was born in the midst of the campaign, he only moved to Maine two years ago. Before his Senate bid, he had never run for or held elected office.
Born in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, he attended Columbia University. He taught as a public school teacher before founding an education company called UClass with Leah. They have since sold the company, helping to supply funding for his Senate race. Recently, both have continued to work in education, though Ringelstein has stepped away from that in order to campaign.
He is running on a platform that supports Medicare for All, governmental guaranteed employment for all and infrastructure investment, from internet for all to keeping open rural hospitals. These policies, he says, will benefit Mainers across the state.
Ringelstein’s relative youth also marks him as an outlier in a state with the oldest median age in the country. King is 74, and the Democratic nominee for governor and current attorney general Janet Mills is 70.
In spite of what he perceives as only partial support from the state party, Ringelstein is clear about his ultimate hopes for the party as a whole.
“I’m a lifelong Democrat,” he said. “I believe that we need to stick with our party. I’m fighting to turn the party into something that actually supports the interests of the people and not the interests of multi-national billionaires.”
Ringelstein’s bid has always been a long shot. Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball—all expert election ratings agencies—have labeled the race “solid” or “safe” for King from the start, while Ringelstein has never polled above 10 percent.
What keeps him going is, first, a firm conviction in what he is fighting for and recognition of the stakes of the political moment. “We’re on the brink of authoritarianism,” he said.
Second, Ringelstein hopes that ranked-choice voting will help propel him to victory.
Maine now employs ranked-choice voting or automatic-runoffs for congressional and senatorial elections. In these races, voters will vote for the first choice candidate and then rank the remaining candidates. If a candidate secures a simple majority of first choice votes, the race is over, and they are declared the winner. If, however, no candidate clears this threshold, the votes of the least popular candidate are redistributed to whichever candidate voters listed as their second choice. This process is repeated until one candidate secures a majority.
“This is the first election in the history of the Senate where you don’t have to vote for the lesser of two evils,” Ringelstein said. “You can vote me one, Angus two.”
The polls haven’t caught up with ranked-choice voting, he said. The question now is: have the voters?
In an email to the Orient, Chris Lynn, a spokesman for the Maine State Democratic Party, wrote that “with ranked choice voting being used in this race, we’re confident the Republican candidate can’t win.” He did not reply to an additional request for comment about Ringelstein’s argument that his campaign and the state party lack synergy.
This has dismayed Ringelstein, who expected his relationship with the state party to look different during the race.
“The party is unfortunately shooting itself in the foot by not supporting the values that people want,” he said. “[They aren’t] talking about college debt, legalization of marijuana or Medicare for All. No one is talking about Medicare for All in Maine except for us.”
Midway through his campaign, Ringelstein joined the DSA, becoming its only member to run for Senate in this election cycle.
“[Democratic socialism] means, as FDR says, freedom from want,” he said. “The belief that in the richest country on earth we can make sure we have Medicare for All, a roof over their head, enough to eat, a great education.”
Founded in 1982, DSA’s membership had dwindled to 7,000 before Donald Trump’s election. Since 2016, its enrollment has swelled to over 50,000. As of last year, the median member age dropped to 33, down from 68 in 2013.
The group has endorsed candidates in elections across the country, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in the federal primary for New York’s District 14 in June, and Rashida Tlaib, who won a primary in Minnesota’s 13th congressional district and will likely become the first Muslim and Palestinian-American woman in Congress.
Ringelstein says his hope is to reshape the Democratic Party so that the DSA’s messages will no longer be in opposition to those of the Democratic National Committee. In response to those who believe in his ideals but think they are practically impossible, he borrowed a tagline from the establishment Democrat for whom he campaigned in 2008.
“We need to start injecting hope into politics,” he said.
Calder McHugh contributed to this report.