AUGUSTA, Maine — When the four Democratic candidates for governor take the stage later this week in Lewiston at their state convention, they will be addressing roughly 1,200 party faithful almost sure to cast ballots in the coming primary.
But if a recent poll is any indication, the four Democrats have yet to catch the attention of most other Mainers despite the fact that the June 8 primary is less than a month away.
Television advertising is typically one proven way for candidates to gain name recognition. But while some Republican gubernatorial hopefuls began advertising months before their party’s primary, only two of the four Democrats have hit the TV airwaves with political ads.
Former conservation commissioner Pat McGowan has a 60-second ad highlighting his background and top priorities while businesswoman Rosa Scarcelli, in her 30-second TV spot, pledges to do things differently than “the career politicians that got us here.”
Both ads have been airing for less than two weeks.
“It’s getting late,” said L. Sandy Maisel, a longtime political observer and Colby College professor.
That is especially true, Maisel said, for McGowan, Scarcelli and former Attorney General Steve Rowe. Polls have consistently shown that Senate President Libby Mitchell has the most name recognition of the Democratic field.
“They think they’re well known, but they aren’t,” said Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby. “They simply have to get on television to get known.”
In a poll conducted by Portland-based Critical Insights, 42 percent of respondents were unable to name even one of the 11 major-party candidates running for governor.
Among Democrats, Mitchell had the most name recognition, with 16 percent of the 600 respondents naming her as a candidate. She was followed by Rowe with 11 percent, McGowan with 9 percent and Scarcelli with 7 percent.
MaryEllen FitzGerald, president of Critical Insights, attributed some of the apparent voter disinterest in a “a general disaffection with politics” both nationally and in the state.
“But primary voters are a different breed than general-election voters,” FitzGerald said.
The Republican race for governor, by comparison, has been much more lively both in terms of advertising and the tone of the campaigns.
Five of the seven Republicans are already on TV. And while there have been no sparks — much less firefights — at Democratic debates in recent months, GOP candidates have repeatedly gone after one another while appearing together at forums.
The already heated GOP race escalated a few more degrees this past week when candidate Bruce Poliquin went after rival Les Otten’s business record with Sunday River ski resort in the first official attack ad of the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Otten, who scored 30 percent name recognition in the Critical Insights poll, promptly responded with an ad defending his record.
Arden Manning, who is leading the Maine Democratic Party’s 2010 campaign efforts, argued that the lack of fireworks on the Democratic side is a positive thing.
“I’m very pleased with the tone,” Manning said. “I think the candidates have very different opinions on the issues and have made them clear, but have done so in a very respectful way.”
Brian Duff, assistant professor of political science at the University of New England, said he doesn’t expect the Democratic race to stay low-key much longer, however.
“I think everyone is keeping their powder dry, and we will hear it when we hear it,” Duff said.
The most recent campaign finance reports appear to support Duff’s suspicions as Mitchell, Rowe and McGowan each have sizable war chests remaining.
McGowan and Mitchell had barely tapped into the $400,000 each received from Maine’s Clean Election Fund as of late April, while Rowe’s privately-funded campaign reported more than $130,000 still in the bank.
Scarcelli had just $28,000 cash on hand. But the successful business owner is widely expected to dip into her personal savings in the latter part of the campaign, if necessary.
Maine Republicans made national headlines during their state convention — held in Portland May 8-9 — when they supplanted a generic platform supported by party leaders with a platform echoing many of the themes espoused by Tea Party activists.
Maine Democratic Party executive director Mary Erin Casale said she expects an enthusiastic crowd when the Democrats gather in Lewiston for their convention later this week.
But Casale said observers shouldn’t expect to see anything similar to what happened at the Republican convention.
“I think we have a more unified party,” Casale said. “And we have [governor’s] candidates who get along.”
The Maine Democratic Party Convention will be held May 21-22 at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.