AUGUSTA, Maine — Helen Hanson of China will appear on Tuesday’s Democratic primary ballot for House District 55 in Kennebec County. She intends to withdraw from the race soon after.
“This was all part of the game plan,” she said. “We can’t find anybody else to run, and I want to hold the spot.”
Under Maine election law, Hanson will have until July 9 — the second Monday in July — to tell the Secretary of State’s office she’s withdrawing from the race. Democrats in the district will have until July 23 to choose a replacement candidate.
Each election cycle, two to four dozen state legislative candidates withdraw from their races after succeeding in party primaries, leaving local party committees to choose replacement candidates, according to the estimates of Maine election officials and a sampling of election records from the past decade.
Reasons for the withdrawals vary. Sometimes, candidates decide they can’t commit to serving in the Legislature after collecting signatures to qualify for the primary ballot.
Other times, party activists known as “paper candidates” qualify for the primary ballot intending to withdraw afterward and be replaced by candidates willing to compete in the general election. By recruiting paper candidates, parties can at least secure a spot on the general election ballot and buy themselves additional time to recruit willing candidates, say former legislative leaders from both parties.
“It happens every election cycle,” said Joseph Bruno of Raymond, who served as House Republican leader from 2000 to 2004. “There are always activists out there who will file as a paper candidate just to make sure you find an opponent for the general election.”
Hanson, who is unopposed in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for the District 55 seat, said she used last weekend’s Democratic Party convention to try to drum up interest in running for the seat among party activists in her area.
“I got some response back, so we’ve got some leads,” she said.
While she would like to serve in the Maine Legislature someday, Hanson said now isn’t the right time. “I need to work,” she said.
So her primary interest this year is in making sure that the incumbent in the race, Republican Rep. H. David Cotta, doesn’t go unchallenged in November.
“I want to give the voters of my district a choice,” she said.
Finding people to run
When Hanson files her withdrawal notice with the Secretary of State after the primary, she’s unlikely to be alone.
Maine’s Secretary of State’s office doesn’t track post-primary withdrawals and replacements from every election cycle. But available data from four election cycles over the past decade show at least 30 candidates for the 151-member House withdrew each cycle after the primary in time to be replaced by a party-picked candidate. At least five candidates for the 35-member Senate did the same each year during the 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008 cycles.
In 2002, for example, 48 House candidates withdrew after the primary. In 2008, 41 House candidates and nine Senate candidates withdrew following the primary vote.
Many of the withdrawals and subsequent replacements are the result of difficulties parties encounter in recruiting candidates in time to qualify for the primary ballot.
“There are enough places where it’s hard to find someone to run,” said Hannah Pingree, a Democrat from North Haven and former House Speaker. “Sometimes you find a good party person who agrees to keep their name on the ballot through the primary.”
Republican Leslie Johnson of Stonington stepped in for that purpose in 2002, when Republicans hadn’t yet recruited a candidate for the House District 129 seat. She qualified for the primary ballot and withdrew afterward.
“By becoming a paper candidate, I would be able to keep that position open,” she said. “In my case and even to this day, I have my own business and travel extensively and would not have been a very good legislator. But I certainly wanted to help the party.”
Republicans ultimately replaced Johnson with Frank Stanley of Tremont, who lost the general election to Pingree.
The candidate recruiting process largely begins in January of an election year, said Bruno, the former House Republican leader. And under Maine election law, interested House and Senate candidates need to file signatures by March 15 in order to qualify for the June primary ballot.
“You’re pretty much squeezed into about 75 days of trying to find a candidate,” Bruno said.
“There are, sometimes, seats where you just absolutely cannot find someone who wants to run for the seat by March 15,” Pingree said. “You hope that by giving yourself a few more months [with a paper candidate], you can find someone who’s interested.”
Not all paper candidates start out as paper candidates, and some paper candidates do aspire to serve in the state Legislature.
With a tight recruiting window and an early qualifying deadline, sometimes “life intervenes” between the time a candidate qualifies for the ballot and the primary vote occurs, said Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport.
In 2004, Rosen took the place of Edward Youngblood in the Senate District 31 race after Youngblood withdrew following the primary due to an illness in his family. Now, Rosen is termed out of the Senate and Youngblood, of Brewer, is running for the seat.
And in 2002, Patricia Sutherland of Chapman had rushed to qualify for the Democratic primary ballot for House District 143 in Aroostook County. After qualifying, she realized she wouldn’t be able to serve.
“I wouldn’t have been able to keep my job, and I just couldn’t afford it,” she said.
But she did have to keep her name on the primary ballot.
If candidates make the decision to withdraw less than 60 days before the primary vote, their names stay on the ballot by law. There is no mechanism in state law to replace such candidates before the November election, so the candidate’s party would essentially lose its chance at winning the seat in November.
Sutherland ultimately withdrew after the primary and the local party committee chose Democrat Raymond Wotton of Littleton to replace her. Wotton won the general election and served one term in the Legislature.
And Sutherland later retired and went on to serve two terms in the Maine House, from 2006 to 2010.
“I went on and worked for a few more years and then did run for the Legislature when I was at a better point in my life,” she said.