Two dozen running, and the first big test is ahead

Posted Feb. 26, 2010, at 9:41 p.m.

In June of 1994, a former regulator and small-business adviser from Caribou named Susan Collins edged out seven other candidates to claim the Republican gubernatorial primary with just 21 percent of the vote.

Democrat Joseph Brennan faced four primary opponents that day yet glided to victory, garnering 56 percent of the ballots.

But five months later it was Angus King — a political independent — who won the Blaine House. And King did it by capturing just 35 percent of the vote.

As it was 16 years ago, the list of candidates could be a long one in 2010.

Although the field is far from set, it appears that Maine voters will have plenty of choices this June and November based on the 24 people who have taken the initial step to fill out paperwork declaring their candidacy.

The first real test of major party candidates is quickly approaching as they work to gather enough signatures by March 15 to ensure their names make it on the primary ballot.

Politically unaffiliated — or unenrolled — candidates have a few more months, but need to convince twice as many registered voters to sign their petitions.

Those would-be governors hoping to tap into the state’s pool of clean election funds, meanwhile, face additional deadlines as they work to solicit enough seed money to prove they are viable candidates.

“You could see the number come down quite a bit, depending on how serious the candidates are,” said Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, whose office oversees the election process. “You have some people who just put their names out there.”

Already three people who registered as gubernatorial candidates with the Maine Ethics Commission have dropped out, bringing the number to an even two dozen. Recent history indicates that the field could shrink considerably by the time the petition signatures are counted.

Democratic, Republican and Green Independent candidates for governor need to collect 2,000 valid signatures from registered voters within their parties by March 15. If they fail, their names will not appear on the June 8 primary ballot.

Unenrolled candidates, meanwhile, must collect 4,000 signatures from registered voters — regardless of political affiliation — by June 1 to be listed as official candidates in November.

In 2006, 21 people registered with the Ethics Commission as gubernatorial candidates. One Democrat and two Republicans were dropped before the June primary, and only three of the 12 unenrolled candidates made it onto the November ballot.

In 2002, the field of major party candidates shrunk by roughly half before the primary and only one of the six unenrolled candidates who registered early on was still around by the general election.

This year’s list of declared candidates includes seven Democrats, seven Republicans, one Green Independent and nine unenrolled. Dunlap’s office had yet to receive any petition signatures from candidates as of this week but is preparing for the potential rush around March 15.

“It’s very tough to gauge what is happening outside of the walls” of state government, Dunlap said. “It’s pretty nebulous right now.”

The impending deadlines, combined with local party caucuses throughout the state, mean that campaigning is already a full-time obligation for many candidates.

Bill Beardsley, who declared his Republican candidacy soon after retiring as Husson University’s president, recently logged 570 miles of driving in a single day.

After starting out in Ellsworth, Beardlsey made an in-person appearance on a Portland-area radio show, attended a party caucus in York County and then drove to western Penobscot County for another caucus in Lee. He ended the day at a pig roast in Millinocket.

Beardsley has both staff and family members out collecting signatures across the state. Yet he still expects to be filling up those petitions until the very last minute.

“It’s a wide-open field, both on the Democrat and Republican side,” he said. “Nobody has been anointed.”

Green Independent Party candidate Lynne Williams is hoping to be part of that field come November. But first, Williams faces considerable challenges collecting the 2,000 signatures by March 15.

State voter rolls show that there are slightly less than 32,500 registered Green Independent Party members in Maine, compared to 319,000 Democrats and 260,000 Republicans. Unenrolled voters constitute the largest block, at more than 366,000 voters.

To qualify, Williams would have to garner signatures from about 6 percent of the registered Greens statewide. But Williams’ task is made even harder by the fact that untold numbers of those Greens were college students registered in 2006 who have long since moved elsewhere or left the state.

For instance, in Williams’ hometown of Bar Harbor, 42 percent of the registered Green Independents were College of the Atlantic students. Additionally, some people apparently mistook Green Independents as the same thing as being unenrolled.

“We are having a very difficult time not because we don’t have the [volunteers] but because the voter lists are in atrocious shape,” Williams said.

So this weekend, the Williams campaign plans to stage a full-scale operation in Portland involving two teams of volunteers. When a volunteer manning the phones reaches a registered Green willing to help, they will dispatch one of the roving volunteers in cars to that address to capture the signature.

Williams said she is cautiously optimistic she will reach the 2,000 threshold despite the challenges. She pointed out that she wasn’t the only candidate looking for signers at a University of Maine-Farmington forum this past week.

“There were 12 people there and every single one of them was collecting signatures still, including the D’s and R’s,” she said.

Rosa Scarcelli, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, said she is attempting to have the majority of communities in Maine represented among her signers, although there is no requirement for geographic diversity.

“I felt it was really important that we have as many Maine towns as possible represented on those petitions,” said Scarcelli, a political newcomer who runs an affordable housing company.

The field of candidates so far includes a mix of veteran politicians or longtime political staffers and business entrepreneurs who have made names for themselves, whether locally or statewide.

There is also a lengthy list of lesser-known candidates who hope to strike a chord with voters on the campaign trail — that is, if they can qualify for the ballot.

Among them is Kevin Scott, a political novice from Andover who is the latest to declare his candidacy.

As an unenrolled candidate, Scott still has several months to solicit the 4,000 qualifying signatures. Scott, who founded a professional recruiting firm, estimates he has collected about 700 signatures so far by knocking on doors and is confident he can get the rest.

His decision not to raise any money until he qualifies for the ballot will put him well behind most of better-known candidates, some of whom are already amassing sizable war chests. A few have even invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money into their campaigns.

But Scott said he isn’t worried.

“I think my message of leveling the playing field in Augusta has been received so well that I don’t think I will have any problem raising funds,” he said.

Anthony Corrado Jr., a Colby College government professor who studies campaign finance issues, said that is not necessarily a bad strategy. Additionally, candidates who manage to qualify for public campaign financing through the Maine Clean Election Fund could be at an advantage this year, he said.

“Candidates are going to find it difficult to raise money, not only because of the economic situation in the state but also because we have so many candidates running, so there is going to be more competition for the available dollars,” Corrado said.

Maine’s clean election program provides public financing for candidates that forgo private donations after meeting two key thresholds showing their viability as a candidate.

In the first test, candidates must demonstrate “community support” by collecting at least 3,250 contributions of $5 or more for the Maine Clean Election Fund. The second qualification requires candidates to raise $40,000 in seed money but in amounts of $100 or less.

Seven candidates have expressed a desire to run publicly financed campaigns, including five major party candidates who would qualify for primary funding. How much money is available to candidates could depend on how many of them qualify for the ballot and for participation in the program.

For several months now, candidates and the Maine Ethics Commission have discussed concerns that the fund could run dry before the November election if too many candidates qualify.

The Ethics Commission’s executive director, Jonathan Wayne, said on Thursday that Williams’ decision not to seek public financing puts the fund on a more stable financial footing.

“There is a possibility that if everything is to the max, we could still find ourselves with a shortfall,” Wayne said. “But that possibility is greatly reduced.”

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