AUBURN — Voters in Androscoggin County will have distinct choices as they study up on whom they would like to represent them in the Maine Senate for the next two years.
The one side features incumbent conservative Republicans, working to keep the Legislature in their party's control and help Gov. Paul LePage advance his agenda in the last two years of his first term in office.
The other features liberal Democrats hoping they can wrest control of one or both houses of the Legislature from the Republicans and stall LePage.
Whom voters choose here and in a few other tight races around the state will be key to the direction state government takes.
Those running know already the first challenge they'll face upon reaching office: an estimated $756 million state budget shortfall for fiscal year 2014-2015 and the urgent need to settle that by June 30, 2013, as required by the state's constitution.
The tightly divided Senate, where Republicans currently hold a slim four-seat majority, will play a prominent role in the debate over the budget and whether that gap is closed with spending cuts, tax increases or some combination of the two.
"There's nothing magic about this," said John Cleveland, the Democratic challenger in the race for State Senate District 15 as he goes over the current makeup of the state's 35-seat Senate.
Cleveland, a former Auburn mayor who has served in the state Senate before, knows he's in one of the tightest races in the state as he faces Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello of Poland, the Republican incumbent.
Snowe-Mello, who has won election or re-election in three of her last four state Senate campaigns, knows it, too. She first won election to the seat in 2004, the first year after a reapportionment pushed several Lewiston precincts out of the district.
She held on to it for two terms but lost the seat by 104 votes to an Auburn Democrat, Deb Simpson, in 2008, only to win it back in 2010.
At a recent candidates' forum, Snowe-Mello shared her ideas on reformed health care, cut taxes and increased support for public education with the audience, a group of about 40 local business people and members of the Young Professionals of Lewiston-Auburn Area.
When asked her approach to settling the state budget shortfall Snowe-Mello said she would cut state income taxes to 4.5 percent.
"I think this will help our job creators, help folks back home to help our businesses to grow and expand and maybe move to Maine," she says. "I do believe that by lowering taxes, when you give you get, so by bringing those companies here you are going to have tax revenues for local towns."
But income tax cuts are the last thing Cleveland has in mind.
He said one of his biggest concerns in resolving a giant budget shortfall is how it can trickle down to local towns. Often the state will reduce how it shares its revenue with municipalities and schools in budget crisis and that means more burden for the local property taxpayer, he says.
"This is a question that's dear to my heart as a former mayor," Cleveland said. "I had to live with those cuts when they came down."
Cleveland said the tax cuts the current Republican majority enacted during the last legislative session were largely unfunded.
Democrats argue that the tax breaks, valued at about $400 million, account for much of the anticipated budget shortfall.
"Control of the Senate is going to be a huge issue," said Ben Grant, the chairman of Maine's Democratic Party. Grant said he sees Senate District 15 as a bellwether district, with Snowe-Mello one of two "very vulnerable incumbents" in Androscoggin County.
The other, according to Grant, is first term Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls.
Mason ousted John Nutting, a long-serving Democratic senator in 2010, the same year Snowe-Mello reclaimed the District 15 seat helping vault Republicans to the majority.
Republicans heralded Mason's win with 56 percent of the vote as a sign locals had given up on the status quo and wanted change.
Maine Republican Party spokesman David Sorenson said the party recognizes the competitiveness of the two Androscoggin County districts.
"Senators Mason and Snowe-Mello are in tough races," he said. "But they are campaigning very hard, engaging voters about what they have done and what they plan to do next term."
Sorenson said once voters consider the records of the incumbents closely they will send them back to the Senate. He also dismisses notions the party hasn't worked in a bipartisan fashion.
"Voters will see how they were a part of a team that got more done for Mainers than any Legislature in recent history, and got it done by building consensus," Sorenson said.
Mason said that while 2010 was a different election than 2012 — a presidential election year, he still believes the message from his first election resonates.
"The message coming out of District 17 was stop the spending, stop the debt and get government out of the way so individuals can create jobs," Mason said. "People were tired of the policy of the status quo, of spending more money on programs that don't work."
The youngest state senator at 27, Mason also has the advantage of calling Lisbon, the largest town in the district, home.
He said his message distinguishes him from his Democratic opponent.
"I believe a smaller government is a better government," Mason said. "My biggest promise to voters has always been a promise to make Augusta as inconsequential in their lives as I can make possibly make it."
Mason's Democratic challenger, Colleen Quint of Minot, has been campaigning steadily since early spring. Earlier in October she said she knocked on her 8,000th door in the elongated y-shaped district that includes the 10 towns of Mechanic Falls, Minot, Turner, Livermore, Livermore Falls, Leeds, Greene Wales, Sabattus and Lisbon.
Quint said the reception at those doors has been largely welcoming and civil, but she also knows Mason is a tough campaigner and a valued up-and-coming member of the Republican Party in Maine.
Quint has local political experience serving on the Minot School Committee, but she also worked for the (Sen. George) Mitchell Institute and has deep Democratic Party connections and an understanding of politics in Maine.
She said her primary focus is on education and jobs and how those two are intertwined in any effort to grow the economy in Maine.
"There's a lot in play in these two Senate seats," Quint said. "I don't know if we will have the numbers to take back the Senate (for Democrats), but if there are opportunities to pick up some seats that are in play here, we can possibly change the dynamic of the Senate and put us in a position to have a more bipartisan approach to a lot of things."
She said besides discovering a remarkable number of dirt roads and scenic vistas in Androscoggin County, her door-knocking campaign has "really broadened my thinking about some issues."
She said she gets a sense that Maine voters are largely not party loyalists and that a large number are so frustrated with the partisan divide they've all but quit participating in the process.
"A lot of folks are ready to throw their hands up," Quint said. It's an affirmation that lawmakers should be "trying to forge that common-sense middle ground."
Snapshot of other state Senate Races in region
Maine Senate Districts 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 all feature contested races, several with well-known candidates, often with State House and local political experience. Several feature former local officials looking to oust incumbent lawmakers.
One, Senate District 14, features a three-way race between former Rumford Town Manager Len Greaney running as an unenrolled candidate, incumbent Sen. John Patrick, a union-backed Democrat, and C. Harvey Calden, a tea-party leaning Republican from Jay.
In District 15 incumbent Republican Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello is defending her seat against former Auburn mayor and Democratic state Sen. John Cleveland.
District 16, which includes Lewiston, the state's second largest city, features a race between the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Margaret Craven, and the Republican challenger and former Lewiston City Councilor Robert Reed.
In District 17 first-term Republican incumbent Sen. Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls, the state's youngest senator, will look to fend off Colleen Quint, a Democratic challenger with deep party connections.
District 18 features Republican incumbent Sen. Thomas Saviello of Wilton facing a Democratic challenger, retired public school teacher and sheep breeder Joanne Dunlap of Rangeley.