More than 30 candidates — 23 Republicans and nine Democrats — have dropped out of races for the Maine Legislature seats this year, including many nominated as “placeholders” to give the two parties time to recruit people who actually want to run.
This is fewer than in 2016 and 2014, but the situation is somewhat complicated by the current lack of Maine Clean Elections Act funding available for any replacement candidates the two parties can find to fill the vacancies. Democrats have found a replacement in House District 111, which includes parts of Madison and the towns of Norridgewock and Solon. The parties face a July 23 deadline to line up candidates for the other races.
The state ethics commission, which oversees public campaign money, said in a memo to lawmakers Wednesday that the Legislature must fix a typo found in a bill before replacement candidates can get public funding. A partisan standoff has prevented lawmakers from making the fix, and the Legislature is now in recess.
“Nevertheless, because a legislative fix is still possible, replacement candidates may declare their intent to qualify for MCEA funding and begin collecting seed money and qualifying contributions,” the memo said.
Clean elections candidates collect $5 donations that qualify them for public matching funds. House candidates need at least 60 donations and Senate candidates must collect 175. The candidates cannot accept private campaign contributions but may become eligible for additional public funds if they turn in more $5 donations. House candidates can be eligible for up to $15,000 in public funds and Senate candidates can receive up to $60,000.
In 2016, 64 percent of legislative candidates ran on public funding. In the House, 60 Republicans ran publicly funded campaigns compared to 115 Democrats. In the Senate, 26 Democrats and 19 Republicans qualified for public funds.
The state spent $3.3 million on campaign financing in 2016 – up from $1.9 million in 2014.
All 35 state Senate seats and 151 seats in the House are up for election this year.
Republicans had nine Senate races without candidates as of Tuesday, while Democrats had candidates for all 35 races. In the House, Republicans lacked candidates in 14 races, compared to eight for Democrats, according to the Maine Secretary of State’s Office.
The lopsided numbers prompted Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett to predict that Republicans are bracing for losses in 2018.
“Seeing so many Republican candidates drop out of their races is a very clear sign that those folks weren’t confident about their chances in November,” Bartlett said in a prepared statement. “The amount of enthusiasm we’ve seen from Democrats interested in running has been off the charts compared to past election cycles, and that’s reflected in the fact that Democrats are fielding competitive candidates in all 35 Senate districts – and those candidates are following through on their commitment to run, unlike what you’re seeing from Republicans.”
But Republican staffers in the state Senate were quick to point out their nine replacement candidates in 2014 picked up four victories – although one was later reversed on a recount – helping Republicans recapture a Senate majority.
“Senate Republicans have won three of the last four majorities, yet we still hear from Democrats how our success is coming to an end,” said Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport. “I am not sure why they keep setting themselves up for disappointment in November. They should be reminded of the old saying, ‘Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.’ ”
Nina McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the Maine Republican Party, dismissed Bartlett’s predictions.
“This is a normal part of the process that occurs every year,” McLaughlin wrote in an email message to the Portland Press Herald. “Perhaps instead of looking to us, the Democrat Party should be focusing on their own races in light of their recent historic losing streak.”