AUGUSTA, Maine — The political landscape for Maine’s next Legislature — and Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s final two years in office — came into somewhat clearer focus Tuesday as the deadline for party candidates to submit nomination papers passed.
Expect Maine Democratic and Republican leaders to tout candidate recruitment efforts as proof of burgeoning grass-roots enthusiasm for their parties. But it happens every other year — and a party’s failure to find candidates to run in all but one or two of the 186 legislative races would be far bigger news than the nearly full electoral dance cards that will be heralded during the next few days in statements from party headquarters.
What’s at stake
As he regularly does, LePage raised the stakes for this year’s election. After a historically contentious first session of the current Legislature, the governor vowed to recruit legislative candidates who would be more supportive of his aggressive conservative agenda.
LePage has used his weekly town hall forums to castigate legislators and urge voters to replace the two-thirds of the Legislature he has labeled as obstructionist or subservient to special interests.
Because Maine is a sparsely populated state with a relatively large Legislature, most legislative elections hinge on acutely local issues. Especially in House races, elections come down to neighbors voting for neighbors to decide who spends the next two years as one of the 151 representatives in Augusta.
That will make it more difficult for LePage to achieve his goal of packing the Legislature with supportive lawmakers. Complicating matters in the Senate — which Republicans hold with a 20-15 majority — will be the departure of a number of incumbent Republicans who chose not to seek re-election. While northern Maine districts such as those held by departing Sens. David Burns of Whiting and Michael Willette of Presque Isle have increasingly leaned Republican in recent elections, losing the power of incumbency in those districts will challenge the GOP as it strives to maintain control of the Senate.
Conversely, a higher number of termed-out Democrats in the House will challenge that party to maintain or grow its advantage in the lower chamber. While Democrats have a recent history of gaining legislative seats during presidential year elections, the hyper-local nature of House races and the need to regain southern Maine seats lost to Republicans in 2014 and in two 2015 special elections elevates that challenge.
Because so much of what happens at the State House revolves around LePage, expect Democrats to reprise their 2012 strategy of running against the governor in legislative races, even though his name does not appear on the ballot. If they secure solid majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats will be much better positioned to neutralize LePage during his final two years in office, which in turn could benefit the candidate they put forth to replace him in 2018.
For Republicans, even simple majorities in the House and Senate would solidify their ideological position and allow them free rein to enact legislation. Despite occasional conflicts between Senate Republican leaders and LePage, they remain largely in agreement that Maine needs to lower taxes, become more business friendly and reduce government spending.
The list of candidates compiled by the secretary of state’s office Tuesday should not be considered a stone-cold preview of the general election. Many of the candidates who have filed are “paper candidates,” meaning they are holding the seat until their party can insert another candidate later. In addition, there are many June primaries, with numerous Democrat-on-Democrat and Republican-on-Republican face-offs to watch until then.
With so much in flux, there’s no way to offer a comprehensive look ahead at the makings of the 128th Maine Legislature. But here are some of the more intriguing subplots, based on online candidate filings compiled by the Maine Ethics Commission:
— In Senate District 2, which represents wide swaths of Aroostook and Penobscot counties, Republican Sen. Mike Willette is not seeking re-election. That sets up a GOP primary between Rep. Ricky Long of Sherman and Emily Smith of Presque Isle. Whoever wins the primary will face Houlton Democrat Michael Carpenter, a former attorney general who lost to Willette in 2014.
— Republican Sen. Earle McCormick is not seeking re-election in District 14, which covers Gardiner, Hallowell and towns near Augusta. Two Republicans and three Democrats have filed to succeed McCormick, likely triggering primaries for both parties. Maureen Blanchard and Bryan Cutchen would face off for the GOP, while Shenna Bellows, George O’Keefe and Terry Berry have filed to run in the Democratic primary.
— In Sagadahoc County District 23, incumbent Republican Sen. Linda Baker of Topsham faces a primary challenge from Guy Lebida of Bowdoin. Baker won the seat in 2014 when she unseated Democrat Eloise Vitelli of Arrowsic, who has filed to run again.
— A three-way Democratic primary looms in Portland for the Senate District 27 seat held by Democratic Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, who is term-limited out of office. Current Democratic lawmakers Diane Russell and Ben Chipman, as well as Charles Radis, are vying for the Democratic nomination. Though that Portland-area Senate seat has been reliably Democrat, there are three other candidates: Green Independent Seth Baker, Republican Mark Lockman and independent Patrick Eliot Norton.
— Senate District 28, which represents part of Portland and part of Westbrook, has a three-way Democratic primary contest between former Rep. Ann Peoples, current Rep. Mark Dion and Portland City Councilor Jill Duson. That seat is held by Democratic Sen. Anne Haskell, who is not seeking re-election. The seat also has been reliably Democratic, so the winner of the primary in this race would be a prohibitive favorite to win in November.
— Two House members dropped re-election bids to compete in a Democratic primary in Senate District 31, which represents a section of York County. Democratic Sen. Linda Valentino withdrew her re-election bid, triggering what looms as a heated contest between Rep. Justin Chenette, one of the youngest legislators, and Rep. Barry Hobbins, whose legislative service dates to the 1970s.
— Henry John Bear, the representative for the Houlton Band of Maliseets, has filed to run as a Democrat in House District 144, which includes part of Aroostook County. He faces longtime Republican Rep. Roger Sherman, who is seeking his 10th term as a legislator.
— Laurence Willey, a former Bangor city councilor and mayor, has filed to run for the Bangor-area District 9 Senate seat against incumbent Democratic Sen. Geoff Gratwick.
— Former Sen. Dana Dow, a Republican, will face off against incumbent Democratic Sen. Chris Johnson for the Lincoln County Senate District 13 seat.
— Former Senate President Mark Lawrence has filed to run as a Democrat in a three-way primary for the open House District 2, which represents part of Kittery and part of South Berwick.
— Isaac Misiuk, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2014, has filed to run as a Republican in House District 32, which includes part of Cape Elizabeth and part of South Portland. He faces incumbent Democratic Rep. Scott Hamann.
— Ginette Rivard, former president of the Maine State Employees Association, has filed to run as a Democrat in House District 149, which represents the Caribou area. She will likely face incumbent Republican Rep. Carol McElwee.
— Blaine Richardson, who ran unsuccessfully for the 2nd Congressional District seat in 2014 as an independent, has filed as a Republican to run against Democratic incumbent Rep. Erin Herbig for the Belfast-area House District 97 seat.
— Duane Lugdon, the United Steelworkers union representative for Maine, has filed as a Democrat in House District 137. If he makes it to the general election, he will likely compete against Republican Rep. Larry Lockman, an outspoken critic of unions and proponent of “right to work” legislation.
Set up your brackets and let the games begin.
Correction: An earlier version of this report stated that Jon Hinck also would be a candidate in the Senate District 27 Democratic primary. Hinck did not qualify for the primary ballot.