Could Democrat win in vacant Senate seat be harbinger for 2012?

Posted Feb. 15, 2012, at 4:43 p.m.
Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Democrats proclaimed Tuesday’s special election in Senate District 20 that saw Democrat Chris Johnson upset Republican Dana Dow as a “repudiation of the Republican agenda” in Augusta.

Party Chairman Ben Grant said the message from the election was clear and it had little to do with Johnson or Dow.

“[Gov.] Paul LePage’s agenda is wrong for Maine, and Republican legislators have been far too willing to fall in line in the face of mounting evidence that the GOP’s plans aren’t working,” Grant said.

Even Dow, who currently represents District 50 in the Maine House, admitted as much.

“I would simply say this vote represents a referendum on the governor and maybe the budget we are trying to get passed,” he told the Lincoln County News. “That might have something to do with it. I don’t feel it’s a referendum on Dana Dow. It’s bigger than that. When people are looking for change anything can happen.”

The win changes little in the short term. Once Johnson is sworn in, there will be 19 Republicans, 15 Democrats and one unenrolled senator.

Democrats, however, will try to parlay Tuesday’s results into success in November, when the remainder of the House and Senate seats are up for grabs. Republicans took control of both chambers during the 2010 elections, ending decades of legislative rule by Democrats in Maine.

Asked whether he thought Democrats were reading too much into Tuesday’s win, Grant replied, “the Republicans are at risk in not taking enough from this.”

“The people of Maine didn’t trust the Republicans for 40 years and, in one year, we’ve been reminded why,” he added.

Johnson was formally welcomed as a a senator-elect during a press conference Wednesday attended by nearly all Senate Democrats. He said he heard from many residents in his district who are frustrated with what’s happening in Augusta.

He said lawmakers have an obligation to make decisions that protect the most vulnerable and to do so, “without pitting one group against another.”

If Dow’s candid assessment is right, will Republicans have to distance themselves from LePage in the coming months in order to survive?

Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, the assistant House majority leader and a Senate candidate for 2012, said he doesn’t think Tuesday’s special election is indicative of Maine’s electorate at large.

“What’s lost in this is that the Democrats knew who they were running last fall, so [Johnson] had a lot more time to meet with voters,” Cushing said. “I think there is dissatisfaction of government as a whole, but I think local races are really about earning the trust of voters.”

Maine GOP Chairman Charlie Webster agreed.

“In my opinion; the next election will be about the welfare state. Do Mainers want to go backwards or shift a little closer to the center?” he said. “I don’t think an individual election changes the next one. It’s a good win for them but it doesn’t change our plans.”

Before Tuesday, the last special election was for House District 24 in Penobscot and Somerset counties. In that race last November, the Republican candidate, Raymond Wallace, defeated Democrat David Pearson and Independent Lesley Maynard, although House District 24 is more reliably Republican than Senate District 20.

Senate District 20 encompasses all of Lincoln County as well as Windsor in Kennebec County and Friendship and Washington in Knox County and is considered a swing district.

With all but one of the 22 towns that make up District 20 reporting, Johnson had 3,278 votes, or 54 percent, according to unofficial results from town officials. Dow took 2,815 votes, or 46 percent, and conceded the race at about 10 p.m. Tuesday.

The seat had been held by David Trahan, who resigned late last year to lead the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Augusta.

Johnson actually lost to Trahan, 56 percent to 32 percent, during the 2010 election for the Senate District 20 seat.

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