PORTLAND, Maine — Libby Mitchell of Vassalboro captured the Democratic nomination for governor of Maine on Tuesday, soundly defeating her three opponents in a genial but spirited race that until the polls opened had no clear front-runner.
With 79 percent of precincts reporting, Mitchell led her three opponents with 35 percent of the vote. Steve Rowe trailed with 23 percent of the vote, followed by Rosa Scarcelli of Portland and Pat McGowan of Hallowell, according to unofficial results compiled by the Bangor Daily News.
Just before 11:30 p.m., chants of “Libby, Libby,” went up from the 200-plus Mitchell supporters gathered at a Portland bowling alley owned by her son. The crowd then roared as Mitchell appeared briefly for the second time that evening, but this time to celebrate her victory.
“Tonight speaks to the politics of hope and not fear, to the politics of bringing people together, not to the politics of division,” Mitchell said on the stage surrounded by her family. “We’ve had enough of it.”
At age 69, Mitchell already is the first woman in U.S. history to serve as Senate President and Speaker of the House in a state legislature. Mitchell’s victory in the primary makes her the first gubernatorial candidate using Maine’s public campaign financing program to make it to the general election.
And if successful in November, Mitchell would add one more historic feat to her resume: Maine’s first woman governor.
The significance was not lost on Mitchell’s daughter, Elizabeth, who introduced her mother to the crowd for her victory speech.
“This is a night of firsts,” the younger Mitchell said. “We have our first Clean Elections gubernatorial candidate. We may now have the first woman governor in the state of Maine. And we have a woman here who has been leading the state of Maine for the past 35 years, and she is ready to lead us to the next win.”
After Tuesday’s primary, the field is now set for what promises to be a lively governor’s race headed into the fall. Mitchell, who was widely considered the most liberal of the four Democratic candidates, will face off against Paul LePage, who openly battled for the title of the most conservative candidate in the GOP primary.
In addition to Mitchell and LePage, three independent — or unenrolled — candidates have qualified for the ballot: Eliot Cutler of Cape Elizabeth, Kevin Scott of Andover and Shawn Moody of Gorham, although Moody has said his decision on whether to stay in the race would depend on the outcome of the Democratic and GOP primaries.
Rowe, who was the runner-up in the primary, congratulated Mitchell on her success and pledged to support her during the general election. The four Democratic candidates are expected to gather for a “unity press conference” in Portland later today.
In an interview, Rowe said he was proud of his campaign’s extensive grassroots network around the state but also of the overall positive tone of the Democratic primary.
“I was very proud that the four Democrats, our campaigns were run on the high road,” Rowe said not long after conceding the race in a speech to supporters at Bull Feeney’s restaurant and tavern in downtown Portland.
Throughout her campaign, Mitchell sought to portray herself as someone who could build coalitions across party lines, as evidenced by the two trimmed-down budgets and two bond packages she helped shepherd through the Legislature.
Mitchell pointed out that, under the leadership of herself and House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, the Legislature cut government spending and created jobs “the Maine way” at a time when Congress and other states were stuck in partisan gridlock.
A former teacher, state housing administrator and most recently a lawyer, Mitchell was first elected to the Maine Legislature in the mid-1970s. She has represented the Augusta area off and on in the Legislature ever since, including serving as Maine’s first woman House speaker.
Mitchell said she believes people were drawn to her campaign by her optimistic message, her experience and her message of being able “to get the job done.”
“That seems to have resonated with people,” Mitchell said after her victory speech. “And quite honestly, there were others who thought it’s about time we have a woman governor.”
Unlike in the Republican race, the Democratic primary was largely congenial and at times even tepid.
The candidates agreed with one another on many policy issues and genuinely appeared to get along, rarely targeting or criticizing one another. Their television ads highlighted their own accomplishments and visions, and the Democratic race never “went negative.”
Some observers speculated that those facts might have contributed to the large number of undecided voters so late both in the Democratic and Republican races.
While Rowe’s contingent at the state convention last month was the most impressive and enthusiastic, his campaign ultimately fell short Tuesday as it became clear Mitchell had sealed the nomination.
Rowe, 57, campaigned on his record as Maine’s attorney general for eight years, reiterating how he fought the Bush administration for tougher environmental regulations and took on the pharmaceutical industry to force lower prescription drug prices. He made early education a hallmark of his campaign.
A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a former Army officer, Rowe sought to position himself as the Democratic candidate with the strongest leadership credentials.
As a Clean Elections candidate, Mitchell received roughly $400,000 in public financing for her campaign. A privately financed candidate, Rowe raised nearly $500,000 during his campaign.
Scarcelli, who campaigned on her business experience as the head of an affordable housing company and as a political outsider, spent more than $562,000 during the campaign, but that total included more than $250,000 of her own money.
McGowan, 54, also ran as a Clean Elections candidate and received $400,000 in public financing. Throughout the campaign, the former conservation commissioner and state lawmaker sought to portray himself throughout the campaign as the candidate with the most intimate knowledge of Maine, its people and its natural wonders.