AUGUSTA — The Legislature is more than two months away from its next session, but the battle lines for a 2016 campaign are being drawn.

And as he does so often over state politics, Gov. Paul LePage looms over it all.

After a session marked by Senate Republican leaders’ split from their party’s governor on the state budget, Democrats are working to win back the chamber next year: At September’s end, the caucus’ campaign arm raised $247,000 to Republicans’ $54,000.

With the January session coming and a cool relationship between the governor and top Senate Republicans showing no signs of detente, some party observers say the climate in Augusta may harm Republican efforts to retain the Senate and gain seats in the House.

After battles that took place this year, next year’s session could put pressure on key legislators who are up for re-election.

Differences between LePage and Republican legislators stood out on two key issues during the 2015 session: The budget and the governor’s authority to withhold voter-approved bonds.

In January, LePage unveiled a budget proposal that would have reduced Maine income taxes with an eye toward eventually eliminating it — a longstanding goal of his. But in the spring, majority Senate Republicans struck a deal with Democrats that didn’t alter the income tax rate, angering minority House Republicans.

They were placated in June, when Republicans and Democrats agreed to a budget with a smaller income tax cut that survived a LePage veto. That March, the governor predicted that his tax changes wouldn’t pass and vowed to “spend the rest of my days going after those people” who opposed him on it.

His bonding power also was targeted after he withheld millions of dollars in bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program. A bill to roll back that authority from Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, was killed after a veto in July.

Lawmakers have submitted nearly 400 bills for the January session ahead of the campaign, and legislative leaders will meet next week to decide which ones are considered. Democratic proposals target LePage’s bonding authority and welfare changes.

“There’s going to be a strong motivation for Republicans to vote against LePage to sort of quantify their independence,” said Lance Dutson, a Republican strategist who founded Get Right Maine, a moderate group that’s critical of the governor. “It’s going to further marginalize LePage’s influence on the process, which I happen to think is a good thing.”

But will the infighting in Augusta matter to the average voter?

The fundraising picture isn’t pretty for Republican legislative candidates: In both chambers, Democrats have raised $429,000 to Republicans’ $94,000.

That’s well ahead of Democrats’ pace in 2013, when they raised $243,000. Senate Republicans are lagging their $77,000 total in 2013, although at $41,000, House Republicans are just ahead of their $36,000 pace two years ago.

Outside groups spent $1.6 million on Maine Senate races alone in 2014, according to a Bangor Daily News analysis. Matthew Gagnon, the CEO of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center and a Bangor Daily News columnist, said LePage’s “toxic relationship” with party legislators is hurting the effort.

“Money in politics is absolutely not what decides elections, contrary to what our Democratic friends think,” he said. “But obviously, the chaos we see on the right is impacting the level of investment you see on these political races, for sure.”

But Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who’s heading his chamber’s effort, said that many have pledged money to help his caucus win and Mainers should be proud of legislators who have shown independence.

“It’s healthy to be willing to talk about the differences that people have,” he said. “I think it’s quite obvious that the governor has strong opinions and, quite frankly, some Senate Republicans have some strong opinions as well.”

Gagnon said he didn’t expect the wrangling in Augusta to make much of a difference in legislative districts: He said the presidential election and lawmakers’ relationships with constituents will matter more.

No legislator knows a hard race like Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough. Outside interests spent $257,000 on her 2014 election — $200,000 of which was spent against her — in a moderate district.

Volk has bucked much of the party on votes this year, including the budget, bond issues, General Assistance for asylum seekers and a successful bill allowing Mainers to carry concealed handguns without a permit. She said it’s “unfortunate that we can’t have more cooperation between the branches of government,” but she’s focusing on areas of agreement.

“At this point, people think they know the governor well enough and they do know me well enough to know we don’t always see eye to eye and that I’m not a rubber stamp for him,” she said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.