AUGUSTA, Maine — The behind-the-scenes campaign for the Blaine House in 2018 has begun, with Republicans waiting to see if federal officeholders jump in, Democrats looking early at a potential insider-outsider race and independents mulling bids.
It’s a race that could reshape Maine, with the term-limited Paul LePage leaving the governorship in 2019, eight years after taking office in a historic year for Republicans that set Democrats back after 40 years in which they largely controlled state government.
The LePage era has provided a deep Republican bench in Maine, but it’s U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin looming large over an otherwise less-known but capable field as perhaps the only people who could drive potential candidates in both parties from the race.
Democrats are a party in flux, with longtime lawmakers faring badly in Maine elections back to 2010. Attorney Adam Cote and Lee Auto Malls chairman Adam Lee could mount outsider campaigns against officeholders past and present, including Attorney General Janet Mills.
Plus, Maine’s independent streak and a 2016 referendum passing ranked-choice voting could leave room for unenrolled candidates, with two-time gubernatorial hopeful Eliot Cutler cracking the door open to a run after vowing last year to not run again.
To examine the field, the Bangor Daily News contacted 24 people who have been named publicly as potential hopefuls or were named by sources, with 21 responding. Eight said they’re considering bids, and eight gave neutral statements.
Collins and Poliquin hold sway over the rest of their party for a few good reasons.
— She polls as Maine’s most popular politician, and he won re-election this year in the 2nd U.S. House District after becoming the first Republican to win that seat in 20 years.
— They could win what they’ve lost before. Collins dropped the 1994 gubernatorial race to independent Angus King, while Poliquin finished sixth out of seven in the 2010 Republican primary.
— If they leave their seats, it would set off a scramble for other accessible offices.
But both are being coy. In a statement, Collins spokeswoman Annie Clark noted that “many Mainers” have encouraged the senator to run, but “it is too early to be speculating about an election that is two years away.” Poliquin strategist Brent Littlefield said he had “nothing to add” when asked if Poliquin is considering a bid.
Four other Republicans indicated openness to a run: Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett of Oxford; Maine Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls; lobbyist and former Maine House Minority Leader Josh Tardy of Newport; and state Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta.
Tardy said he’s in the “early stages” of considering a run and talking to people about supporting his potential candidacy, looking to make a decision by summer.
“I’d like to know what Sen. Collins or Congressman Poliquin are going to do, and that would certainly inform my decision,” he said.
Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew of South China is also rumored to be considering a run. She was neutral on a run in an email, citing “critical issues” at the department that “deserve my full attention.”
Ruling out a run was Cianbro President and CEO Peter Vigue of Pittsfield. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, has said he won’t run.
One Democratic source said he’d put money on just two candidates in his party running at this point: Cote and Mills, with Lee perhaps next most likely. Cote and Lee would be the types of candidates that Democrats haven’t traditionally run.
In 2010 and 2014, LePage beat two longtime legislators, Libby Mitchell and Mike Michaud. Poliquin twice beat Democrat Emily Cain, who boasted a 10-year legislative record, and Democrat Hillary Clinton lost Maine’s 2nd District to the political outsider Trump this year.
Cote, an attorney from Sanford, finished second in the 2008 primary in Maine’s 1st District won by Chellie Pingree, who went on to win the general election and still holds the seat. But he impressed, raising more than $650,000 and beating former legislators Michael Brennan and Ethan Strimling, who have since been mayor of Portland.
In a lengthy statement, Cote said he was considering a run, noting Maine’s rural economic struggles and high rates of child poverty, calling for “smart, progressive economic growth in every part of Maine.”
Lee of Cumberland has been active in Maine politics as a donor to Democratic candidates and causes and sits on several boards, including that of the Maine Conservation Voters. He said he’s continuing to consider a run and will decide “in the next month or so.”
Mills of Farmington didn’t respond to a request for comment. Other past or current officeholders who said they’re considering a run include Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap of Old Town and former Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland.
Pingree and former House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick gave neutral statements on the question. So did Lucas St. Clair of Portland, president of Elliotsville Plantation Inc., son of millionaire conservationist Roxanne Quimby and driving force behind the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument declared this year by President Barack Obama.
“This is the best state that I have ever lived in. I am so thankful that I am able to live here and raise my family here. And regardless of what is next for me professionally, I want to be part of the solutions,” St. Clair said.
Ruling out runs were former House Speaker Hannah Pingree of North Haven, the congresswoman’s daughter, and Yellow Light Breen of Holden, CEO of the Maine Development Foundation. Former state Rep. Adam Goode of Bangor said he hasn’t considered running. Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash has said he won’t run.
Cutler of Cape Elizabeth is the biggest name in the independent field, and he likely would have been governor had ranked-choice voting — which he supported — been the law in 2010.
That citizen-initiated law has constitutional questions, so it’s unclear what role it will play in 2018. He got just 8 percent of votes in 2014 and told the Portland Press Herald in 2015 that he was “taking a vow of abstinence” from running again.
Now the CEO of the University of Maine System’s Professional and Graduate Center Initiative, Cutler said in an email that the vow “certainly applies for so long” as he works there, “which would mean that since I remain in the System’s employ, I really shouldn’t comment any further.”
“Nice to know, though, that at least in your eyes I still have ‘potential!’” Cutler put in parentheses.
Moody’s Collision Centers founder Shawn Moody of Gorham finished fourth in the 2010 race, mounting a late bid that garnered just 5 percent of votes, but lots of goodwill for Moody’s genial disposition. LePage has appointed him to Maine’s university and community college boards. Moody said it’s “too early” to say whether he’ll run again.
And another prominent independent, former state Sen. Dick Woodbury of Yarmouth, said he has no plans to run now and it’s not likely that he will.