June 20, 2018
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After years of control by Dems, can GOP take state senate?

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

While many eyes in Maine have been focused on the hotly contested governor’s race, dozens of state Senate contests are heating up as well, and the state’s two major parties have increased spending accordingly for the stretch run.

Democrats currently hold a 20-15 advantage in the 35-member Senate. But 18 is the magic number, and Republicans need to gain just three seats to assume the majority.

Since 1982, Republicans have held the Senate outright for only one two-year period, although in 2000 the chamber was split 17-17 with one independent.

Democrats took control of the Senate in 2002 and have held it since, but for the last decade, power has teetered on the brink with paper-thin majorities. After the 2004 and 2006 elections, Democrats had a 19-16 advantage and an 18-17 advantage, respectively. That increased to 20-15 after 2008.

The House has been Democratic even longer, since 1974, a fact that has gotten a lot of attention by Republicans and some Mainers who are fed up with what they perceive as one-party rule.

This year the House seems safer for Democrats since they have a commanding 95-55 lead, but this could be the GOP’s best chance in a long time to resume control of the Senate, experts say.

“Not only can they do it, but with the mood of the electorate and anti-incumbent sentiment, I think the Republicans have a very good chance,” University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer said Friday.

Of the 35 Senate seats, nine are open this year, which means an incumbent is not running. Among those nine, five seats are held by Democrats and four by Republicans.

Of the 14 Senate districts within the Bangor Daily News coverage area, eight races feature an incumbent. Based on their incumbency, the districts they represent and performances in past elections, Republicans Kevin Raye (District 29), Debra Plowman (32), Roger Sherman (34) Richard Rosen (31) and Democrats Elizabeth Schneider (30) and Troy Jackson (35) seem likely to return to Augusta.

Arden Manning, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party, said District 32 in Penobscot County, currently held by incumbent Joseph Perry, always seems to be contested, although Perry has won three consecutive elections.

Manning also said open seats such as District 28 in Hancock County and District 23 in Waldo County could prove crucial.

“These races often get overshadowed by the governor’s race, but we still need to have a Legislature that can work with our next governor,” Manning said.

Raye, who many believe would be selected as Senate president if Republicans prevail, said parties always pay close attention to open seats. But he thinks incumbents such as Perry, who faces a stiff challenge from Republican Nichi Farnham, a former Bangor mayor and city councilor, are vulnerable, too.

“I think it’s a reflection not only of the mood of the electorate but a real sense among Maine people that the Democrats have dominated the Legislature basically for 36 years. They want a new direction,” Raye said. “This is not the first time that the Democrats have been out of touch, but I think recent efforts to overturn efforts of a Democratic Legislature has connected the dots for people.”

One of the more intriguing open Senate races is District 23, which pits assistant House majority leader, state Rep. John Piotti, D-Unity, against two-term state Rep. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport. Each is vying for the seat that will be vacated by Republican Carol Weston.

Piotti has to deal with anti-incumbent sentiment even though he’s running for the Senate for the first time after holding a House seat for many years. Thibodeau also is a former legislator.

District 28 features a three-way race among Reps. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, and James Schatz, D-Blue Hill, and Green Independent Lynne Williams. That seat is held by Dennis Damon, a Democrat who is ineligible to seek re-election because of term limits.

Term limits are not the only factor contributing to open races. In some cases, such as District 24, held by Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Libby Mitchell, and District 26, held by Republican Peter Mills, who lost in his party’s gubernatorial primary, the incumbent is not seeking re-election. In District 27, Douglas Smith, R-Dover-Foxcroft, is not seeking reelection. Democrat Susan Mackey Andrews and Republican Douglas Thomas are vying for that seat.

All races are coming into the homestretch, and parties have been doing research and even some private polling to identify races that are more in play than others. That determines where the money goes.

Jonathan Wayne, head of the Maine Ethics Commission, said campaign spending has spiked in the last few weeks, particularly with independent expenditures, although he said that is typical. Much of the spending in local races goes toward mailers and targeted advertising.

In District 28, Schatz, the Democrat, has received independent expenditures on three occasions from Equality Maine PAC totaling $15,595. That allowed his opponents, the Republican Langley and the Green Independent Williams, to receive matching funds.

Similarly, in District 23, Democrat Piotti has received more than $50,000 to date from six different PACs, enabling Republican Thibodeau to receive the same amount.

In District 32, Democrat Perry has received $12,671 from various political action committees. Republican Farnham has received about $12,000 from PACs.

Of the more than 100 independent expenditure reports filed to the Maine Ethics Commission, 15 involved contributions to a candidate in Senate District 32. Nine have contributed to the District 23 race.

Both sides are aware of what’s at stake.

Manning said he understands voter frustration this year, but he thinks that has more weight at the national level and in the governor’s race.

“If you work hard, anyone can win,” he said. “In local races, party doesn’t matter as much because candidates can meet with people face to face. They can connect with voters on a personal level.”

To that end, Manning said, if the party sees a candidate working hard, that might prompt a cash influx.

Raye, meanwhile, hopes the increased spending helps his party finally regain control.

“What you’ll see with a Republican Senate is a single-minded focus on improving Maine’s economy,” he said. “We’ve moved so far in the wrong direction.”

As the governor’s race plays out, Brewer of UMaine said the results of Senate races could provide interesting dynamics.

“If there is a Republican Senate for a Governor Paul LePage, he’ll have an easier job,” Brewer said. “Similarly, if it’s a Governor Libby Mitchell with a Republican Senate, that will make her job harder.”

Either way, there could be some knock-down, drag-out fights in the next legislative session.

“A LePage governorship with a Democratic Legislature is going to be extremely messy,” he said. “We’re talking government shutdowns and all kinds of nastiness.”

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