AUGUSTA – When they sit down to lobster dinners at their annual party social in Falmouth today, Maine Democrats will celebrate the 50th anniversary of a milestone in state politics.

Edmund Muskie’s election over a sitting Republican governor, Burton Cross, on Sept. 14, 1954, marked the beginning of the rise of the Maine Democratic Party. Granite-solid Republican control eroded and Democrats gradually took over the State House and became competitive in congressional races.

Now, the question is how long Muskie’s party will remain the dominant force in Augusta.

Dorothy Melanson, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, said she’s confident her party will be returned to power this fall, but adds, “I absolutely take nothing for granted.”

Republican leader Kenneth Cole III believes GOP prospects, aided by the latest reapportionment, are positive.

Maine’s population is drifting into suburban areas, which gives them more political clout, and “those tend to be more Republican-leaning areas,” said Cole. “You’ll watch the Republicans having a bit of a renaissance.”

The political landscape party leaders are scoping out is much different than it was before Muskie’s election.

From the mid-1800s, Republicans held commanding majorities in both the Maine House and Senate that in some cases were almost absurd.

In 1894 and 1896, for example, the GOP came to Augusta with 146 House seats, while the Democrats had a meager five. In the Senate, Republicans went the limit, racking up all 31 seats and leaving none for the Democrats.

In 1910, Democrats managed to turn things around and took majorities in both chambers, but it was short-lived and GOP regained its old dominance and ruled for a few more decades.

It was a similar pattern in the executive branch, which was the domain of Republicans with a few scattered, short-lived exceptions until Muskie came along.

The three-term state representative made his bid for governor about the time television sets were showing up in homes across the state, giving Muskie exposure he would not have received from the print media, said Clyde MacDonald, who later served on Muskie’s U.S. Senate staff.

“He saw that as a crucial factor,” said MacDonald.

Voters were also getting disillusioned with an administration in Augusta that was battered by scandal and turned to Muskie, said MacDonald. Editorial support from a longtime critic, King Harvey of the Fort Fairfield Review, helped push Muskie over the top, MacDonald recalled.

Muskie’s commanding presence helped win him a second term in 1956, said MacDonald. He was succeeded by another Democrat, Clinton Clauson, in 58.

While Republican John Reed came back with successive wins in the next two Blaine House elections, as terms were doubled to four years, Democrat Kenneth Curtis took back-to-back wins in 1966 and 70.

It wasn’t until John McKernan was elected in 1986 that another Republican lived in the Blaine House. No Republican has been elected governor since McKernan was awarded a second term in 1990, although independent Angus King served eight of those years.

At the congressional level, GOP dominance was shaken with the election of Frank Coffin as 2nd District representative in 1956.

Since then, Maine’s congressional scroll has featured stars from both parties, from Muskie and his one-time staffer George Mitchell on the Democratic side to William Cohen and Olympia Snowe from the GOP.

The GOP dominance in the legislative branch came to an end in 1965, after Lyndon Johnson’s landslide presidential victory. The majority tilted back to the GOP after that, but by 1975 the Democrats were firmly in control.

The Democrats have not relinquished the House majority since, except briefly in 1996 when Republicans gained the edge thanks to switched party registrations, recalled John Martin, who started a three-decade term of House service in 1965 and went on to wield the gavel as House speaker for 20 years.

In the Senate, where Martin now serves, Democrats have maintained much more precarious majorities since 1983. They have been in the minority for brief periods, notably in the mid-1990s when they were down a couple of seats, and later tied 17-17 with one independent.

But the time is ripe for a change, said state Sen. Richard Bennett, a Norway Republican who shared the Senate presidency with a Democrat during the 17-17 split of 2001-02.

Bennett traces the Republicans’ downfall to intraparty fractiousness in 1948 and culminating with Johnson’s 1964 landslide. Now, he said, Democrats have lost their ability to blame the ills of the state on a Republican or independent governor and instead try to blame them on the Republicans in Washington.

“I suspect that this tactic will not work,” said Bennett, whose party this year has the most legislative seats contested since its troubles all started in 1948.

With the presence of a huge bloc of independent voters, the two-party system of past generations is no longer in play, said Melanson.

“It’s a three-party system almost in Maine,” said Melanson. “I think we’ll always have that group of independent thinkers.” Her party’s goal, she said, is to try to woo them to its rolls.

Martin believes the Democrats have an edge because Maine Republicans are generally more moderate than their counterparts in other parts of the country. Their views often bring them in sync with Democratic thinking and make them more likely to vote for a Democrat, said Martin.

Cole agrees Maine Republicans lean toward the center, noting that Republicans who win tend to be moderates. But for Republicans as well as Democrats, “you cannot win in Maine without the support of the independent votes.”

“The Maine voter time and again has said, Look, we don’t want you to be on the fringes of your party, we want you to basically a moderate, mainstream that represents hopefully effective government,” said Cole.

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AP-ES-08-14-04 1909EDT

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