Presque Isle rep’s 2010 party switch at heart of Democratic spending opposing his re-election

Posted Oct. 30, 2012, at 5:36 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 31, 2012, at 6:12 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — As spending on Maine legislative races by the state’s political parties and other third-party groups crosses the $3 million threshold statewide, a House race in Aroostook County is drawing a disproportionate amount of the attention.

The Maine Democratic Party is trying to recapture a seat it had defended in 2010 when Rep. Michael Willette won re-election to a second term. The party then lost the House District 5 seat just days after the election when Willette switched parties.

His party switch has been at the crux of Democratic opposition to his second re-election bid.

As of late Tuesday, the Democratic Party and allied groups had poured more than $32,000 into mailers, radio ads and television spots targeting Willette, according to data from the Maine Ethics Commission. Outside groups had spent more than $56,000 total on the race. Just one other House race, in Scarborough’s District 128, had attracted more outside money.

“We feel like there are many Republican incumbents around the state who are vulnerable based on the votes that took place over the past two years,” said Maine Democratic Party chairman Ben Grant. “Particularly Mike Willette, who campaigned one way and then took a 180-degree turn.”

The Maine Democratic Party first waded into the race over the summer with a series of mailers targeting Willette and promoting the Democrats’ own candidate, Robert Saucier.

Since then, the party has continued investing in the race along with two allied political action committees backed largely by unions. Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools, backed by the Maine Education Association, has produced mail pieces opposing Willette although the teachers’ union supported him two years ago.

The Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class, a political action committee that formed in July largely with union support, recently spent $22,000 on a television ad targeting Willette for changing parties.

“It basically feels like we’re being invaded and the voters are being inundated with this stuff to try to sway this election,” said Willette, a Presque Isle Realtor. “They want to try to buy this seat. They want this seat to go back to the Democratic Party.”

Republicans and a handful of allied groups have responded with mail pieces and radio and online advertising in an effort to boost Willette. Republican forces had spent nearly $17,000 as of late Tuesday.

House District 5 covers part of Presque Isle. Democrat Jeremy Fischer had held the seat for three terms before Willette was first elected in 2008.

Willette said he switched parties in 2010 because he didn’t fit well in the caucus as a fiscal conservative and social libertarian. The last straw, though, was when local Democrats in Presque Isle started encouraging voters to support his Republican opponent.

“What we’re experiencing here is a carpet-bombing kind of situation from the Democratic Party,” he said. “They’re ‘teaching me a lesson’ for when I switched parties back after the 2010 election.”

While the state Democratic Party supported the then-Democratic Willette in 2010, the party this year is calling him out for running a dishonest campaign two years ago, Grant said.

“I don’t think someone who goes to Augusta to represent 6,000 people should use some petty dispute with one or two people to totally change their stripes,” he said. “If your values are subject to change based on the whims of who’s in the majority, then you’ve got to question whether that’s someone who’s been honest during the course of the campaign.”

For his part, Saucier, who recently retired from the U.S. Social Security Administration, said he’s run a quiet campaign by knocking on most doors in the district, participating in candidate forums, putting up campaign signs and producing mail pieces.

“Basically, it looks like the parties are the ones that are fighting it out amongst themselves,” he said. Regarding Willette’s party switch, he said, “There’s a lot of unhappy people.”

Both Saucier and Willette are receiving public funding under the Maine Clean Election Act, limiting their total campaign spending to about $4,400 each during the general election. Under state law, they’re barred from coordinating any outside expenditures with parties and political committees supporting them.

The House race in Scarborough that has attracted the most outside spending this election cycle pits first-term Republican Rep. Heather Sirocki against Democratic challenger Jean-Marie Caterina. As of late Tuesday, the race had attracted nearly $58,000. For context, about 8,500 people live in a Maine House district.

The Sirocki-Caterina race has landed on the radar of national Democratic organizations. Earlier this month, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a union- and business-backed group based in Washington, D.C., put the matchup on its list of 60 key legislative races in 23 states.

In September, the League of Conservation voters placed Sirocki on its nationwide “Dirty Dozen” list of state-level candidates for her voting record on environmental issues.

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