Race for the Blaine House: Who will advance?

Posted June 04, 2010, at 9:07 p.m.

For months, the 11 Republican and Democratic candidates for governor have crisscrossed Maine in a race to shake enough hands, court enough groups and generate enough political buzz to seize their parties’ nominations next Tuesday.

They’ve appeared at so many debates that the candidates insist, only half-jokingly, that they can recite each others’ stump speeches. And many Mainers may feel the same way by the time the bombardment of political ads finally stops.

So with the primary election just days away, which two Blaine House hopefuls have the momentum to squeeze out a victory over their respective rivals?

Most objective observers say both the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial primary races are still very much in play, despite several campaigns’ attempts to paint themselves as the front runners.

The big question, pundits and political junkies say, is who has the grass-roots organization to turn out their base in a primary election that, despite the size of the field, has to date failed to attract the interest of the vast majority of Mainers?

“Frankly, nothing is going to surprise me at this point,” said Brian Duff, a political scientist at the University of New England in Biddeford.

GOP field a diverse one

On the Republican side, candidate Les Otten continues to run a high-profile campaign fueled by roughly $2.5 million of his own money and counting. Otten has highlighted his roles as co-founder of Sunday River Ski Resort and as a former Boston Red Sox co-owner.

But self-financing a campaign has risks in Maine, and other candidates have been appealing to GOP faithful that are either unimpressed by Otten or uncomfortable with his spending.

“He has the lead, I would say, pretty much on the back of $2.5 million of his own money,” said Matt Gagnon, a Republican-leaning blogger who is editor in chief of the Maine political website www.pinetreepolitics.com. “I think what [Steve] Abbott is trying to do is be that alternative option.”

Abbott, Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ former chief of staff, has picked up a slew of endorsements recently from newspapers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a host of lawmakers.

Abbott’s moderately well-financed campaign has strategically made those endorsements a central piece of his final push, giving the appearance, at least, of a groundswell of support. That could prove influential among some voters, Duff said.

In the battle for Maine’s more conservative voters, Waterville Mayor Paul LePage appears to be pulling ahead of former Husson University President Bill Beardsley, according to several recent polls. LePage has also become a popular candidate among voters who identify with the national Tea Party movement.

“He seems to have motivated the conservatives of the Republican party who want dramatic change, that don’t like [Sen. Olympia] Snowe and Collins and who will shake things up,” said Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington.

But are there enough Tea Party members in Maine to give LePage or Beardsley an edge over the more moderate Republicans? Melcher and Gagnon are skeptical.

“I am doubtful it can carry somebody,” said Gagnon, adding that Maine’s Tea Party movement is not as vibrant as in other states.

Several observers agree that the potential dark horse in the race is Peter Mills, although the veteran lawmaker and former gubernatorial candidate would likely never refer to himself as such.

Mills is by all accounts the most moderate of the seven, as evidenced by his support for the tax reform measure that is the target of a people’s veto on the June ballot. And Duff notes that with so many Republican voters still undecided, Mills’ name recognition and the fact that people voted for him before to be governor could be a deciding factor.

“I do think he stands out in the field,” Duff said. “He is the most moderate and he has the most experience in state politics.”

Candidate Bruce Poliquin, a business owner from Georgetown, is the second-best financed among the Republicans and has taken on the role — along with Gagnon, at times — of targeting Otten. Gagnon gave Poliquin and Abbott credit for running the best on-the-ground team, but said Poliquin has struggled to find a “home base” of support or to win favor among many of the party faithful.

Business recruiter Matt Jacobson, meanwhile, has run what many consider to be an energetic campaign and has performed well at debates. But Jacobson has apparently struggled on the financial side, thereby forcing him to hold off on television advertising until late in the primary campaign. He consistently trails in the polls.

As with any race, turning out your local base is important.

Mills has his roots in central Maine, while Otten has his in the western part of the state. Abbott, an Orono native, and Beardsley are battling for the Greater Bangor-area vote although Abbott now lives in southern Maine.

LePage, meanwhile, is hoping his upbringing in the Lewiston area and his Waterville connections will help him capture Maine’s French-Canadian vote.

But Melcher and Gagnon believe that, unlike on the Democratic side, geography will play less of a factor than candidates ideological differences in the GOP race.

“There is no question that there’s a much wider ideological spread to go from Mills to Beardsley, and there are a lot of steps in there,” Gagnon said. “The problem is with seven of them, there are only a couple of steps in between each one.”

Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster agreed that there is a considerable number of undecided voters out there. But Webster sees that as a positive.

“With the quality of the candidates that we have this year, a lot of Republicans feel that any one of them would be a good candidate for governor,” Webster said.

For Dems, few fireworks

With only four candidates, the Democratic field is a little less unwieldy than the Republican race. But that doesn’t make it any easier to read the proverbial primary tea leaves, observers said.

The race features three veteran public figures — former Attorney General Steve Rowe, Senate President Libby Mitchell and former conservation commissioner Pat McGowan — and a political newcomer, businesswoman Rosa Scarcelli.

But unlike their GOP counterparts, the four Democrats have fewer ideological differences to help distinguish them. They have also run a fairly genteel and, with one notable exception, largely uneventful race thus far, campaign watchers say.

“I think the Democrats have a better chance of uniting the party after the primary, but I don’t think any of the candidates have had a noticeably better few weeks in terms of momentum than the others,” said Melcher.

The only fireworks came when several campaign volunteers for then-candidate John Richardson were accused by election officials of falsifying documents. Unable to qualify for public financing, Richardson was forced to withdraw from the race.

Mitchell has consistently had the highest statewide name recognition, due largely to her time as Senate President and Speaker of the House. A Vassalboro resident, Mitchell’s base is clearly the Augusta area and the contingent of state employees she has represented in Augusta during her 30-plus years in the Legislature.

Mitchell has also been spending heavily on television advertising in recent weeks, playing up her role in brokering bipartisan agreements on the budget and bond packages.

“She seems to have checked all of the boxes of what you need to do to win in Maine,” said Mike Tipping, a political columnist for Down East magazine’s website. Tipping also runs his own political blog, www.mainepolitics.net.

That said, Tipping pointed out that Rowe had the largest visible grass-roots support at the Democratic state convention in Lewiston last month.

The Portland resident also has a strong voting base in southern Maine, although his eight years as attorney general, his military experience and his pledge to be the “Democratic flag bearer” likely gives him statewide appeal, observers said.

“Steve Rowe has shown strong grass-roots support, especially at the convention,” Tipping said. “The thing with his campaign is he doesn’t have much money, so his ad buys have been pretty small.”

Throughout his campaign, McGowan has touted his Maine roots and reputation as an outdoorsman, pilot and all around nature lover.

McGowan has also sought to capitalize on his family’s name recognition in central Maine as well as any lasting goodwill among Democrats for his aggressive — although unsuccessful — challenges of Snowe in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in the early 1990s.

Observers say that while McGowan may not be as well known statewide as Mitchell and Rowe, he could capture the nomination with a solid victory in the 2nd District and a decent showing in the 1st District.

“In any race, the big thing is figuring out who supports you and doing everything you can to make sure they get out and vote,” Duff said.

As the newcomer, Scarcelli began the race with the least name recognition of the Democratic candidates. Born in Wilton and living in Portland, Scarcelli has also sought to carve out a niche among southern and western Maine voters while pointing out that the large affordable housing company she runs operates in 14 of Maine’s 16 counties.

Scarcelli has consistently been the most aggressive candidate during debates and public appearances, seeking to paint her three opponents as “political insiders” who are part and parcel to a system that is discouraging job growth in the state.

Pundits agree that message will likely resonate with voters in the general election, given the national distrust and anger toward incumbents and “politics as usual.”

Finding favor among the hardcore Democrats likely to show up for a primary, however, is going to be a bigger challenge, Tipping and others said. So Scarcelli has also been encouraging Republican and unenrolled voters to switch parties — if only briefly — to vote on June 8.

With recent polls indicating huge numbers of undecided voters and the relatively mild-mannered primary campaign, some have suggested that many Democrats will just stay home next Tuesday.

Mary Erin Casale, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party, disagrees.

“I think there is going to be a strong turnout and all of these campaigns have worked hard to make that happen,” Casale said.

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