Similar party tensions, challenges at play in Maine’s GOP, Democratic primaries

Posted June 06, 2014, at 12:46 p.m.
Last modified June 06, 2014, at 3:21 p.m.

Whether the Republican Party’s tea party wing can manage electoral success against party incumbents has dominated the narrative surrounding primary races across the country this spring.

On Tuesday, when Maine voters select primary candidates who will appear up and down the November ballot, they won’t be weighing in on a high-profile race with a tea party challenger trying to take down an incumbent. But some of the same intra-party tensions will be at work — and not just on the Republican side.

Congress: In Tuesday’s top-of-the-ticket primary, Republicans in the state’s 2nd Congressional District will choose between former state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and former state Senate President Kevin Raye. Democrats will choose between state Sens. Emily Cain and Troy Jackson.

Poliquin has burnished his tea party credentials in the contest with a sharp focus on cutting federal spending and pointed criticism for what he calls career politicians. Raye, who previously worked for former Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, has absorbed the establishment label. He’s quick to tout his National Rifle Association endorsement, disdain for President Barack Obama and opposition to the federal health care reform law. However, Raye, who received the BDN editorial board’s endorsement, also has struck a number of positions more moderate than Poliquin.

The Democratic contest has taken some similar turns. Jackson has fashioned himself the populist underdog who will fight — and not compromise — on issues important to working-class people. While Jackson has racked up several labor endorsements, Cain has received support from a number of other groups that traditionally back Democrats, including organizations promoting LGBT rights, environmental protection and women’s reproductive rights. According to Federal Election Commission records, outside groups have so far dropped more than $218,000 into the race to aid Cain, who has received the BDN editorial board’s endorsement, and oppose Jackson.

“In a lot of ways, these races would be the same,” said Ronald Schmidt, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, “but the Republicans have this national tea party narrative that makes the distinction a little more clear.”

The challenge for candidates in party primaries, Schmidt said, is to appeal to their party’s core voters in a way that excites them and keeps them excited through the general election, but in a way that doesn’t alienate the wider range of voters who will turn out in November.

Traditionally, that task is more difficult for Democrats in a midterm election year that draws out fewer voters than a presidential election, Schmidt said.

Keeping party primary voters excited while not alienating those from the general electorate is a challenge faced not just by the four candidates vying for Maine’s open seat in Congress.

State Senate: Four dozen candidates hoping to be elected to the Maine Legislature this fall face the same challenge in much smaller districts across the state. In the state Senate, voters on Tuesday will settle five contested party primaries, including two in which sitting senators — Republican Sen. Doug Thomas of Ripley and Democratic Sen. John Tuttle of Sanford — are facing challenges.

Of the five Senate primaries, just one contest is between Republicans.

State House: The 151-member Maine House will be home to 19 intra-party primaries — 11 among Republicans and eight among Democrats. Just one House incumbent, Rep. Ralph Chapman, D-Brooksville, has a primary challenge.

The graphic below catalogs every contested primary on Tuesday’s ballot for a seat in the Maine Legislature.

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