BATH, Maine — Sagadahoc County voters will head to the polls Tuesday for a Maine Senate special election that political strategists say could have vast implications for next year’s statewide elections and the balance of power in Augusta.
Democrat Eloise Vitelli, Republican Paula Benoit and Green Independent Daniel Stromgren have had little more than a month for campaigning, though outside spending by partisan groups has amassed at a frantic pace.
Independent expenditure reports compiled by the Maine Ethics Commission showed that as of Monday afternoon, some $158,000 had been spent for or against Vitelli of Arrowsic and Benoit of Phippsburg, with no outside spending on behalf of Stromgren. While that total would have ranked eighth when compared with the most expensive Senate races in 2012, this year’s special election spending was done in about six weeks as opposed to over a period of several months in each of the 2012 contests.
The most expensive Maine Senate race in 2012 — and in Maine history — was in the Bangor area where Democrat Geoffrey Gratwick defeated incumbent Republican Nichi Farnham. That contest drew more than $454,000 in campaign spending, but financial disclosures indicate that spending began in February, some eight months before the election. In rough figures, that puts average daily spending on the Benoit vs. Vitelli race at more than $3,700, compared to about $1,900 per day for Gratwick vs. Farnham.
Both Benoit and Vitelli, as well as Stromgren, of Topsham, expressed optimism heading into Tuesday’s election. Senate District 19, which includes all of Sagadahoc County plus Dresden in Lincoln County, was a safe Republican seat for decades prior to 2008, when Democrat Seth Goodall of Richmond won it from Benoit by a razor-thin margin. Goodall resigned from the Senate last month.
A Benoit win would weaken the Senate Democrats, who with Goodall enjoyed a 19-15-1 majority during the legislative session that concluded last month. If Benoit wins, Democrats would retain a slim majority, but because it takes 24 votes to override a gubernatorial veto, Benoit being seated would make it more difficult for Democrats to reach that threshold. That could be a major factor when the Legislature returns next year to address potentially contentious issues such as the expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, which failed repeatedly earlier this year in the Senate by just a couple of votes.
A win by the lesser-known Vitelli would preserve the Democrats’ power base in the Senate and reaffirm the effectiveness of continuing their 2012 campaign strategy that linked Republican legislative candidates to LePage, specifically his controversial public statements. Democrats and their allies campaigning on Vitelli’s behalf aggressively tried to portray LePage as a liability while connecting Benoit to him.
“Given Vitelli’s relative lack of political experience, Benoit should have a cakewalk,” said Emily Shaw, a liberal-leaning assistant professor of political science at Thomas College in Waterville. “But the potential impact of the governor’s style and the fact that in the last session we saw that Senate Republicans frequently came to the defense of his political decisions is relevant to anyone thinking about making a choice in this election.”
Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett continued his push on behalf of Benoit in an email Monday afternoon and suggested that the outcome of Tuesday’s special election has vast implications.
“Time is short and this is the best chance we will have this year to start to build momentum for 2014,” wrote Bennett. “A victory tomorrow will put Democrats and liberal special interests on notice that the people of Maine are behind us.”
The polls in Senate District 19 close at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Watch www.bangordailynews.com for full election results.