PORTLAND, Maine — A pair of Republicans vying for Maine’s two congressional seats face an uphill battle against Democratic incumbents. But Dean Scontras and Jason Levesque are encouraged by the big GOP turnout in Tuesday’s primary and hope it gives them a boost in their own campaigns.
In a state known for its moderate Republicans, a swell of conservatives, tea partiers and sympathizers turned out to give a stunning victory to conservative Paul LePage in the GOP gubernatorial primary. Observers give him some of the credit for the biggest GOP turnout in state primaries since 1952.
The fired-up GOP, Tea Party movement and voters’ dark view toward Washington have combined to shape this election season in a way that could help both Scontras and Levesque.
“Conventional wisdom is sort of out the door with this election,” said Scontras, a businessman from Eliot who lost his primary two years ago to the more moderate GOP candidate.
Scontras hopes the conservative tide gives him a boost in his bid to unseat Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree in the state’s 1st Congressional District. To the north, Levesque has attended Tea Party functions as part of his effort to beat Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud in the 2nd Congressional District.
“My confidence was high when I announced in June, but it’s now gone through the roof,” said Levesque, a marketing executive from Auburn. “The people are energized.”
The GOP turnout was the biggest since 1952 for a primary election. The field of seven candidates and tax reform referendum drew Republicans to the polls, but LePage also turned out an especially big vote. All told, about 131,000 Republicans cast tallies, outnumbering Democrats at the polls.
Both Scontras and Levesque were unopposed in Tuesday’s election so they received scant media attention even though both have been running active campaigns.
Both stand to receive a noticeable bump from the Tea Party movement and its sympathizers, said Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine. Also going in their favor is an anti-incumbent sentiment as well as anger directed at Democratic President Barack Obama.
But that perfect storm may not be enough.
“It will increase their support,” Brewer said. “I just don’t think it’s enough to carry them to victory in November, or even to make it much of a serious race.”
Sandy Maisel, a longtime political observer and political science professor at Colby College, agreed but cautioned that all incumbents including Pingree and Michaud will have to run serious campaigns if they want to avoid being swept up in the anti-incumbent fervor.
The electorate “is not anti-Democrat or anti-Republican. They’re anti-Washington and incumbents have to make sure they don’t get caught in that wave,” Maisel said.
Pingree, for her part, said she feels the Tea Party-inspired GOP platform and LePage’s success don’t necessarily reflect the sentiments of most Mainers.
“I continue to believe that this particular ideology is a little more conservative than the average Maine voter. But we’ll work hard,” she said. “I would never take any election for granted.”
One of the things that’s encouraging for Levesque and Scontras is LePage’s success on a frugal campaign budget. LePage had double the votes of his closest primary challenger, Les Otten, despite having spent less than $200,000, compared with more than $2 million for Otten, according to the latest campaign reports.
Scontras and Levesque will have fundraising disadvantages of their own. But they think the timing is right for Mainers frustrated by big programs and the growing national debt to vote Republican in November. Scontras, for one, said he has been approached by Democrats who’re planning to jump ship.