Democrats say unexpected special election win a rejection of LePage, GOP

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AUGUSTA — The State House was buzzing Wednesday following a significant upset in the state Senate District 20 race. 

Democrats have not held the District 20 seat since 2002. That changed Tuesday night when Chris Johnson, who lost decisively in a three-way race in 2010, upset Republican favorite Dana Dow. District 20 covers Boothbay and almost all of the other towns in Lincoln County.

Johnson received 54 percent of the vote, edging Dow by 3,369 to 2,902, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Dow conceded late Tuesday night.

Observers said the outcome in the longtime Republican stronghold was a vote against Gov. Paul LePage. Dow, in comments to the Lincoln County News, echoed that sentiment, telling the paper late Tuesday night, “I would simply say this vote represents a referendum on the governor and maybe the (Department of Health and Human Services) budget we are trying to get passed.”

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Dow, who represents Waldoboro in the Maine House of Representatives, added, “I don’t feel it’s a referendum on Dana Dow. It’s bigger than that. When people are looking for change, anything can happen.”

Dow held the District 20 seat for two terms prior to getting elected to the House in 2010. He tempered his comments Wednesday, saying he didn’t begin campaigning until January and that his duties as an elected official in the House were a priority. 

Democrats, meanwhile, acknowledged that they didn’t want to run Johnson against Dow, because the Republican had been so popular. A Maine Democratic Party mailer sent to enrolled Democrats never once mentioned Dow. The mailer instead featured a photo of LePage alongside the words, “There is a bully in Augusta pushing around seniors, children and middle-class families.”

The turnout numbers have yet to be released. However, absentee ballot numbers favored Democrats over Republicans, 346-277. About 120 unenrolled voters voted absentee, along with 10 Green Independents.

The Democratic turnout also appears to have neutralized spending by Republican political action committees. Republican PACs held a 4-to-1 advantage over Democratic PACs in independent campaign expenditures. 

Much of the GOP money went to newspaper and television advertisements. The Feb. 9 edition of the Lincoln County News featured two large ads supporting Dow. One half-page advertisement was purchased by Dow, while a full-page advertisement in the broadsheet newspaper was paid for by the Republican Party. 

Johnson didn’t have a single campaign ad in that same edition. However, he did have a distinct advantage: time on the campaign trail. 

Democratic operatives said the candidate began knocking on voters’ doors in October.

The special election was held to fill the seat vacated by David Trahan, who stepped down in December to head the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. Trahan, who was initially reluctant to relinquish the seat, announced he was joining SAM in October. 

While Johnson was campaigning, the Republican candidate for the seat was not determined until the Lincoln County Republicans in December picked Dow over Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna, to run in the special election.

House Majority Whip Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, noted that even if the GOP candidate was picked sooner, Dow or Fossel wouldn’t have been able to campaign until Trahan stepped down. 

Dow said Wednesday that he didn’t hit the trail until Jan. 11.  

Still, Dow was considered the favorite, given his popularity. It wasn’t until late last week that Republicans began to see a closer-than-expected race. The Maine GOP last Friday released an action alert seeking reinforcements for an ad drop.

It didn’t help. Dow carried his hometown of Waldoboro by only 85 votes. 

Dow said Wednesday he was disappointed and relieved.

“It’s been a long, stressful process for me,” he said.  

Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said Wednesday that the result sent a “loud and clear message that the Republican majority is out of touch” with Mainers. 

He added, “Republicans are at risk of not taking enough from this. What they’re selling is not being bought by the people of Maine.”

Johnson, during a press conference at the State House, said the Legislature had to get back to work creating jobs. 

“Finding a way to do this without pitting one group against another is important,” Johnson said. 

Some Republicans were stunned by the result, but warned against reading too much into a special election in which low turnout could give the edge to the party with the best ground game.

Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, said Republicans thought Dow was in a good position to win until last week.

“I think everyone is a bit surprised by this,” he said. 

Johnson will hold the seat until Trahan’s scheduled term expires at the end of the year. Johnson is expected to face Fossel during the November election.

Dow will retain his seat in the House of Representatives.

The win will marginally effect the makeup of the state Senate, where Republicans hold 19 seats. Democrats will have 15 seats once Johnson is sworn in. There is one independent who caucuses with both parties.

The power dynamic is relatively unchanged with Johnson’s victory. However, there may be additional political implications in the 2012 legislative races, and possibly, in how the Republican majority uses its current power in the Legislature.

smistler@sunjournal.com

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