AUGUSTA — Voter reaction to two politicians not even on the ballot in 2018 – Gov. Paul LePage and President Trump – could play heavily in determining which party controls the Maine Legislature for the next two years.
Power at the State House is currently split near evenly, with the Republicans holding a one-seat majority in the Senate and Democrats with an only slightly larger three-seat advantage in the House.
The current narrow divide in the Legislature has allowed LePage to leverage his veto power, which he has wielded more than 600 times to stop any bill he doesn’t like when it passes the Legislature without at least two-thirds support in both chambers – the minimum needed to override a veto.
LePage and many of his staunchest allies in the House Republican caucus are unable to seek re-election because of Maine term limits. In the Senate, where Republicans hold 18 of the chamber’s 35 seats, Republicans will lose seven incumbents to term limits and one to a campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Democrats, on the other hand, lose only one incumbent to term limits in the Senate and start the fall campaign with an automatic two-seat advantage, with candidates in Windham and Portland who face no opposition.
On the House side, 14 Republicans will lose their seats to term limits compared to seven Democrats. Also in the House, eight Democrats face no opposition in November, compared to three unopposed Republicans.
A REFERENDUM ON GOV. LEPAGE
In many ways, the race for the governor’s office is playing out as a referendum on LePage, with his would-be Republican successor, Gorham businessman Shawn Moody, vowing to keep LePage’s agenda on cutting taxes, welfare and regulatory reforms on course. Meanwhile, all three of Moody’s opponents – independents Terry Hayes and Alan Caron and Democrat Janet Mills – are vowing to be as unlike LePage as possible.
Trump will likely have a trickle-down impact on state elections in Maine, where he carried the state’s northern and more rural 2nd District but trailed Democrat Hillary Clinton in the southern 1st District in 2016.
Lance Dutson, a Republican political operative and frequent LePage critic who has worked on statewide campaigns for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and former Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers, said there’s little doubt that in many ways 2018 will be a “referendum with what’s going on with the president.”
“The national indicators are that the national atmosphere is better for Democrats,” Dutson said. But he also warns that both parties may be turning voters off with what he describes as a “caustic political death match” that could tamp down enthusiasm.
One thing that won’t be tamped down is spending, with large national political action committees already pouring money into Maine from both sides, supporting and attacking candidates of all stripes.
Independent expenditures by party committees and political action committees reached $365,979 for all legislative races by Sept. 7, according to 60-day pre-election reports filed with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices. More than half of that money has been aimed at just 10 tight state Senate races.
Republicans last won the majorities in the House and the Senate in 2010 but lost both to Democrats in 2012 before recapturing the Senate majority in 2014 and then holding it by the narrow one-seat margin now in play in 2016. Democrats have remained in control of the House for the last four years – but with less than a 10-seat margin, getting anything past LePage without Republican support has been impossible.
Former Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant and former Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster both said they expect 2018 to be a tight battle for control of the Legislature. And both men have been on the winning side before while also watching their parties subsequently lose control.
“The Senate has almost always been very tight,” said Grant, a Portland attorney. “And I don’t think I’m willing to say there is a wave election coming.”
THE COAT-TAIL EFFECT – GOOD AND BAD
Roughly 10 of the 35 Senate seats are in play, with the remainder solidly in the hands of one party or the other. Grant pointed out that the balance of power breaks down geographically, with Democrats largely dominating the state’s largest cities and the southern coastal region and Republicans controlling the more rural northern and inland regions.
With three congressional races and the election of a governor at the top of the ballot, candidates for State House seats could also benefit from – or get burned by – a coat-tail effect.
Webster, a retired oil-burner repairman and former legislator from Farmington who ushered in Republican majorities as the state party chairman in 2010, said the party with the more unified message from the top of the ticket down will come out ahead. Webster said national politics could be a factor as well, and support or opposition to Trump will loom as large locally as it does in the U.S. congressional races.
Both Webster and Grant are helping with campaigns for candidates this year in their respective parties. Webster is involved in a handful of legislative races and Grant as the attorney for the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mills.
“The big question will be whether the anger we are seeing (toward Trump) is real or fabricated,” Webster said. “I think it’s fabricated, largely. In rural parts of the state I am still seeing handmade wooden signs that say ‘Trump,’ and they are not old.”
Grant said voter turnout will also be a critical indicator of whether one party or the other can capture the majority at the State House. In the June primaries Democrats outpaced Republicans by about 30,000 more voters. Democrats also have an edge over Republicans in total registered voters, although unenrolled voters remain the largest group in Maine.
“When you look around the country for the last year and a half, Democratic performance across the board has been on an upswing,” Grant said. “Even if they can’t vote for or against Trump, Democrats are fired up having just lost a presidential race in 2016.”
Grant also expects the national political mood could play a role in Maine elections, but he cautions that in some instances, local issues will be more important to State House candidates.
Correction: This story was updated at 2:40 p.m. Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, to correct the number of House seats in play.
KEY RACES FOR MAINE LEGISLATURE
District 7: The contest in coastal Hancock County will feature Democrat Louis Luchini against Republican Richard Malaby – both are termed out of the House and seeking the seat of Republican Sen. Brian Langley, who is also termed out. Both Luchini, of Ellsworth, and Malaby, of Hancock, won their respective House races in 2016 by wide margins.
District 11: The seat in Waldo County is open in 2018 with the departure of Mike Thibodeau, who is the termed-out Republican Senate president. Thibodeau won the seat in 2016 by 861 votes, but House Majority Leader Erin Herbig, a Democrat from Belfast, is running for the seat against Republican Jayne Giles, also of Belfast. Giles has also served two terms in the House of Representatives.
District 13: In Lincoln County, incumbent Republican Sen. Dana Dow of Waldoboro is being challenged by Democrat Laura Fortman of Nobleboro. Dow is the owner of Dow Furniture, while Fortman is a former executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby.
District 14: The seat in Kennebec County could also be in play as Republicans look to unseat incumbent Sen. Shenna Bellows, a Democrat from Manchester. Spending on the race by outside groups has been heavy as Republican challenger Matt Stone of West Gardiner looks to keep Bellows from a second term.
District 20: The contest in Androscoggin County features Republican Ellie Espling of New Gloucester against Democrat Ned Claxton of Auburn. Espling is well-known as the assistant House minority leader, but Claxton is a well-known retired physician hailing from the largest city in the district. The seat flipped from Democrat to Republican in 2014 when Eric Brakey defeated incumbent Sen. John Cleveland, a Democrat. Brakey, who has served two terms, is stepping down in a bid to run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Angus King.
District 30: This seat could be in play as well as incumbent Republican Amy Volk faces Democratic challenger Linda Sanborn. While Volk, of Scarborough, handily won re-election to the seat in 2016 after she moved to the Senate from the House in 2014, Sanborn represents a serious challenger. Sanborn, a retired family physician from Gorham, has strong name recognition and has previously won election to the Legislature, serving four terms in the Maine House of Representatives from 2008 to 2014.
District 9: Rep. Stedman Seavey, the Republican incumbent, won by just 91 votes in 2016. Seavey, of Kennebunkport, faces Democratic challenger Diane Denk of Kennebunk.
District 19: Incumbent Rep. Matthew Harrington, R-Sanford, won the seat in 2016 by 120 votes. He faces Democratic challenger Jeremy Mele, also of Sanford.
District 25: Incumbent Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, won the seat unopposed in 2016. This year he faces Democratic challenger Jennie Butler, also of Windham.
District 26: Incumbent Rep. Maureen Terry, D-Gorham, won the seat by 40 votes in 2016. She faces Republican challenger Kenneth Hoyt Jr., also of Gorham.
District 58: Incumbent Rep. James Handy, D-Lewiston, won the seat by 107 votes in 2016. He faces Republican challenger Denise Hurilla.
District 66: Incumbent Rep. Jessica Fay, a Democrat, took the seat from Republicans in 2016, beating then Rep. Mike McClellan, R-Raymond, by 98 votes. This year Fay faces Republican challenger Gregory Foster, also of Raymond.
District 69: Incumbent Rep. Phyllis Ginzler, R-Bridgton, won in 2016 by 147 votes over Harrison independent Walter Riseman. Ginzler is not seeking re-election and Riseman is running again, this time against Republican Tony Lorrain, also of Harrison.
District 74: Incumbent Rep. Tina Riley, D-Jay, won in 2016 by 61 votes. Riley faces Republican challenger Robert Staples, also of Jay.
District 75: Former Sen. John Nutting, a Litchfield Democrat, is running against Republican Joshua Morris of Turner. This is an open seat vacated by Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, who is running for the state Senate.
District 86: This open seat is being vacated by Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta. Pouliot handily won re-election in 2016 but the district, which includes large numbers of unionized state workers, can be fickle. Republican Justin Fecteau and Democrat Jennifer Day, both of Augusta, will compete for the seat.
District 100: Another open seat is being vacated by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport. Fredette won the seat unopposed in 2016. Republican Danny Constain of Plymouth and Democrat Frederick Austin of Newport will compete for the seat in 2018.
District 113: Incumbent Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, is not seeking re-election, leaving the seat open. Harvell won the seat in 2016 by 93 votes in an open race against Democrat Scott Landry Jr. Landry, also of Farmington, is running again for the seat this time against Republican Paul Brown, also of Farmington.
District 121: This is an open seat as incumbent Rep. Bob Duchesne, D-Old Town, is termed out. Republican Gary Drinkwater of Milford, who lost to Duchesne by just nine votes in 2016, will try for the seat again squaring off in a three-way race against Democrat Teri Casavant of Milford and independent Bonnie Young of Argyle Township.
District 128: Incumbent Rep. Garrel Craig, R-Brewer, seeks to fend off Democratic challenger Arthur Verow, also of Brewer. Verow held the seat for three consecutive terms until he lost the seat to Craig in 2016 by 57 votes.
Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at: