PORTLAND, Maine — Political analysts watching the 1st District Republican primary said Wednesday the unexpected difficulty state Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney had in winning his party’s nomination will bruise him heading into an already tough November race against incumbent Democrat Chellie Pingree.
But Portland mariner and city Republican City Committee Chairman Patrick Calder, who came from relative obscurity to nearly upset the better known Courtney Tuesday, said the nip-and-tuck race may benefit the Springvale lawmaker in the general election.
The Bangor Daily News called the race, which Calder controlled for much of the night as results were reported Tuesday, in favor of Courtney just after 11 a.m. Wednesday on the strength of a late surge in his hometown of Sanford and nearby Lyman.
“You could say this [close competition] brought a lot more attention to this race, and that helps,” Calder said Wednesday. “It shows people are paying attention.”
Courtney said pundits overestimated his name recognition and pointed out that he entered the race three months later than Calder. Courtney officially launched his campaign in early May, while Calder entered the race in late January.
“The U.S. Senate race overshadowed us so much, there wasn’t much attention paid to our race,” Courtney told the BDN Wednesday. “Most people don’t pay attention to who the state senator for Sanford is, and we understand that. People have work to do and bills to pay. We don’t take anything for granted, and we knew getting into it the race would be tough.”
Many who follow politics, however, didn’t believe the race would be tough, and said Wednesday they think it damages Courtney heading into what would have been a challenging general election regardless.
Ethan Strimling, a former Democratic state lawmaker and current BDN-WCSH 6 political analyst, said Calder stood out as better-spoken on the issues during public appearances on the campaign trail.
“A win is a win in politics, but sometimes a win is embarrassing, and this looks like one of those times for Courtney,” Strimling said Wednesday. “Courtney and the Republicans have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Why wasn’t our party more unified, and why didn’t a candidate as distinguished as Jon Courtney, with his name recognition, gain better traction?’”
Phil Harriman, a former Republican state lawmaker who joins Strimling in the point-counterpoint BDN political blog Agree To Disagree, said it’s premature to anoint Pingree November’s winner, but agreed the surprisingly tough race could slow Courtney down at the onset of the general campaign.
“I think if Calder was the winner, he [could have] taken a positive out of this. He could demonstrate he could unseat an experienced senator and on top of that a floor leader,” Harriman said. “I think Calder would use this as a trampoline to jump off, and I think it also would give him a curiosity bounce by the media: ‘Who is this guy and how did he beat somebody so experienced?’
“But if Courtney is ultimately determined to be the winner, I think he comes out of this not having jumped off a trampoline, but falling on the pavement,” he continued. “Here’s a guy who has political pedigree who was almost beaten by a newcomer. He’s going to have to rejuvenate his campaign even among Republicans.”
University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer agreed that Calder’s strong showing primes him for a bigger stage moving forward, and said both Republican primary candidates can take lessons learned from the neck-and-neck race into the fall.
“I certainly thought Courtney was going to win relatively easily, and the fact that he didn’t is surprising,” Brewer said. “Even though he looks like he’s going to lose, Patrick Calder has a lot to be proud of. He came out as a relative unknown and almost took out a legislative leader. There are plenty of people today who know who Patrick Calder is who didn’t know him two months ago, and they’ll remember who he is.”
But Brewer said either candidate would have faced an uphill battle challenging the two-term incumbent Pingree, who held a campaign war chest of $210,158 compared with Courtney’s $16,645 as of the most recent federal reports. Pingree is also married to billionaire hedge fund investor and Democratic financial backer S. Donald Sussman.
“I think [the closeness of the GOP primary] provides an interesting academic discussion, but at the end of the day it won’t matter,” Brewer said. “The 1st District gets more Democratic by the day. With each cycle that passes, it gets harder and harder to imagine a Republican winning the 1st District in Maine without a massive scandal or something. The longer Chellie stays in, the more formidable she becomes. Combine that with the massive financial advantage she’ll have, and my sense is it just won’t matter.”
Harriman acknowledged Pingree’s advantage, but disagreed her victory is a foregone conclusion.
“I think the fundamental premise that the 1st District race is over before it starts because the race is so Democratic [is faulty] — you’ll see that over the years both parties have held that seat,” he said. “The [Republican] candidates are going to have to earn their money on Main Street, and Mainers aren’t as well off as the people Chellie can access. That makes the challenge all the more difficult, but victory all the sweeter.”