AUGUSTA, Maine — With fewer than 100 days until Election Day, campaigns by legislative candidates are heating up and naturally, both Republicans and Democrats in Maine say the political winds will blow in their favor come Nov. 4.
House Republican candidates gathered at the State House on Tuesday to highlight the fact that they have contenders in 150 of 151 House races. Democrats countered that although they are fielding only 139 candidates, they have far more incumbents seeking re-election and a divisive and controversial governor to campaign against.
Who will win legislative majorities is a guessing game that plays out every two years in Maine when all 186 seats in the Legislature are up for grabs. While the governor’s race receives far more widespread attention than House and Senate elections, who holds the majority in the legislative branch — and by how much — is arguably more important than who sits in the Blaine House when it comes to either party advancing its agenda.
It’s a crucial balance.
If one party holds the governor’s office and two-thirds, vetoproof majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, that party can do pretty much as it pleases. That has not been the case in Maine for decades, although substantial Democratic legislative majorities during some of Democratic Gov. John Baldacci’s eight years in office meant Democrats had to win over only a few minority Republicans to pass social program expansions and a major school administration consolidation initiative.
If one party holds the governor’s office and the other holds less than two-thirds majorities in both the Maine Senate and House — which is how it has been in Maine for the past two years — it’s likely to set up gridlock, with the majority party passing bills but unable to overturn gubernatorial vetoes and the governor and minority legislators powerless to enact their bills.
A third dynamic, which is rare, is a governor who faces a two-thirds legislative majority in the other party, which essentially strips the executive branch of its power.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who led the Republican rally outside the State House on Tuesday, said his party is poised to take over the majority.
“The numbers at this point in time speak for themselves. … I think this is an election cycle that should be very favorable to Republicans,” said Fredette, who cited President Barack Obama’s low approval rating as a national indicator that Republicans will be energized in November.
But what Fredette didn’t say is that there are state-level factors that could nullify any national shift to the political right.
Indeed, t he Republican State Leadership Committee cited backlash against Obama when it identified Maine as one of the top five states where the GOP could overtake Democrats for majority control of the Senate. With 19 Democrats, 15 Republicans and one independent, the Senate could see power flip with only three Republican pick-ups. But Republicans’ path to a majority in the House is much tougher, with Democrats holding 89 seats versus 58 for Republicans. There are also four independents in the House who almost always vote with Democrats.
The Democrats’ current 31-member lead (at least) is only part of the story. They also have far more incumbents running for re-election. Eighteen out of 49 eligible Republican incumbents have chosen not to seek re-election, compared with 10 out of 76 eligible Democrats who have bowed out. That translates to 66 Democrat incumbents and 29 Republican incumbents running for re-election, which means a slew of political newcomers will have to do very well for the GOP.
Democrats say the outmigration of incumbent Republicans is because of “LePage fatigue,” which they say is a symptom of the governor bucking against the Legislature with 182 vetoes — many of them of Republican bills and negotiated bipartisan budget measures.
Fredette dismissed that notion.
“The reality is that Republicans are not career politician-type folks. These are people who want to come in and serve maybe one or two terms and then go back to their private lives,” said Fredette. “At the end of the day, Gov. LePage is going to get re-elected. At the end of the day, Gov. LePage is going to get Republicans out to vote.”
While LePage’s base of support has been solid since his election to office in 2010, it remains below 40 percent and his only path to victory in 2014 requires Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler splitting the rest of the votes. While that scenario is a very real possibility, Democrats say there are enough anybody-but-LePage voters to defeat him and that Republicans’ support of most of LePage’s vetoes will hurt them at the ballot box.
“Our message is resonating with voters across the state who want to send Paul LePage packing and give Mike Michaud the legislative partners he needs to enact real, positive change,” said Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant in a written statement on Tuesday.
Some Republican candidates, such as Doug Damon and Gail Sheehan, both of whom are running for House seats in the Bangor area, said their campaigns have nothing to do with LePage and that they want to come to Augusta to whittle away at gridlock.
“The past two years have been disgusting,” said Damon, a former legislator who is running against incumbent Democrat John Schneck this year in District 126, which includes part of Bangor. “It’s all been about ‘my bully versus your bully.’”
Sheehan, a former Brewer city councilor and mayor — as well as a longtime employee of former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe — is trying to oust Democratic Rep. Arthur Verow of Brewer in the District 128 seat.
“The people want us to pay more attention to the issues and less attention to the personalities,” said Sheehan. “We need to talk about what we agree about first.”
Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick said Democrats are targeting House races with weak or inexperienced Republicans and ignoring certain districts that traditionally vote Republican or where there are strong, left-leaning independents.
“Our goal has always been to rely on a targeted and strategic approach to find the right candidate for each district and we’ve never been more successful than in this election cycle,” said Eves in a prepared statement.
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that Democrats held two-thirds legislative majorities while John Baldacci was governor.