Democrats say special election win shows momentum, but Republicans blame money, negative campaign

Posted Aug. 28, 2013, at 12:54 a.m.
Eloise Vitelli thanks supporters after winning the special Maine Senate District 19 election Tuesday night in Bath.
Eloise Vitelli thanks supporters after winning the special Maine Senate District 19 election Tuesday night in Bath. Buy Photo
Republican Paula Benoit of Phippsburg  greets voters at the Topsham polls Tuesday for the special Maine Senate District 19 election.
Republican Paula Benoit of Phippsburg greets voters at the Topsham polls Tuesday for the special Maine Senate District 19 election. Buy Photo
Gretta Wark, treasurer of the Sagadahoc County Democrats, gets results for Topsham Tuesday night in Bath.
Gretta Wark, treasurer of the Sagadahoc County Democrats, gets results for Topsham Tuesday night in Bath. Buy Photo
Eloise Vitelli grins after winning the special Maine Senate District 19 election Tuesday night in Bath.
Eloise Vitelli grins after winning the special Maine Senate District 19 election Tuesday night in Bath. Buy Photo
Topsham poll worker Anette Philippon  collects ballots the old fashioned way in Tuesday's special Maine Senate District 19 election. Town Clerk Ruth Lyons said she did not run out of ballots, despite a report by a local newspaper.
Topsham poll worker Anette Philippon collects ballots the old fashioned way in Tuesday's special Maine Senate District 19 election. Town Clerk Ruth Lyons said she did not run out of ballots, despite a report by a local newspaper. Buy Photo
A sign in Arrowsic  urges voters to exercise their right to vote in Tuesday's special Maine Senate District 19 election.
A sign in Arrowsic urges voters to exercise their right to vote in Tuesday's special Maine Senate District 19 election. Buy Photo
Paula Benoit watches the returns come in Tuesday night in Bath during a special election to fill a vacant Senate seat in District 19. Benoit lost to Democrat Eloise Vitelli.
Paula Benoit watches the returns come in Tuesday night in Bath during a special election to fill a vacant Senate seat in District 19. Benoit lost to Democrat Eloise Vitelli. Buy Photo
Eloise Vitelli, candidate for Maine District 19, shakes hands at the polls in Bath on Tuesday evening.
Eloise Vitelli, candidate for Maine District 19, shakes hands at the polls in Bath on Tuesday evening. Buy Photo
Voter Stephan Puff, a lay minister at his church, said before he cast his ballot that voting is important. &quotI tell them to be the change they want in the world," he said of his parishioners.
Voter Stephan Puff, a lay minister at his church, said before he cast his ballot that voting is important. "I tell them to be the change they want in the world," he said of his parishioners. Buy Photo
Green Independent candidate Daniel Stromgren of Topsham greets voters in his hometown on Tuesday for the special Maine Senate District 19 election.
Green Independent candidate Daniel Stromgren of Topsham greets voters in his hometown on Tuesday for the special Maine Senate District 19 election. Buy Photo
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, congratulates Eloise Vitelli after her win Tuesday night in a special Maine Senate District 19 election in Bath.
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, congratulates Eloise Vitelli after her win Tuesday night in a special Maine Senate District 19 election in Bath. Buy Photo

BATH, Maine — Democrats said Eloise Vitelli’s victory in Tuesday’s Senate District 19 special election is proof that voters are swinging to the left, though Republicans said it was another example of the power of Democratic money in local elections.

Whether Vitelli’s victory is a preview of Democratic victories in the 2014 general elections remains to be seen but one thing is certain: Democrats’ strategy of linking Republicans to Gov. Paul LePage is working. Republicans, on the other hand, say political newcomer Vitelli’s victory was the result of a negative campaign. When the votes were tallied Tuesday night, Paula Benoit fumed that she was misrepresented.

“I’m a fiscal conservative,” said Benoit on Tuesday night outside Byrnes Irish Pub in Bath, where Republicans had gathered to watch the results just a few steps from Democratic headquarters. “I make no apologies for being cautious with the taxpayers’ money. I did not engage in a negative campaign and I don’t rubber stamp anything for the governor. That’s how distorted this campaign was.”

Leading into the election, both parties said they expected the results to be close, and they were. According to unofficial results tallied by the Bangor Daily News, Vitelli garnered 4,621 votes to Benoit’s 4,339, which is a margin of about 3 percent, or 282 votes.

Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett said Sagadahoc County is viewed as a swing district and that Tuesday’s results mean nothing for the 2014 election.

“There’s always a tendency to read into these things larger than they are,” he said. “This is an election between three people and that’s it.”

In campaign literature circulated on behalf of Vitelli — much of it funded by the Maine Democratic State Committee — linking Benoit to LePage was priority one. Whether it was the literature or voters’ own impressions that made the link, several voters interviewed Tuesday by the Bangor Daily News brought up LePage on their own.

Ed Flotten of Topsham, who said he is an unenrolled voter who casts his ballot based on the candidate and not his or her political party, said his vote Tuesday was in opposition to LePage.

“I think it’s important to keep the balance of power the way it is in the Legislature,” said Flotten, who has voted for numerous Republicans over the years. “I’m not for LePage. He doesn’t present a professional demeanor or presence. He doesn’t know how to keep his mouth closed and it reflects badly on the state of Maine. … I’m just here to make sure Benoit doesn’t get in.”

Wendy Briggs of Arrowsic, Vitelli’s hometown, said despite her general support for Vitelli, her vote was in part a reaction to Maine’s controversial governor.

“I feel like she’s the best candidate, especially now when we need the ability to raise the argument above where it has been recently in Augusta,” said Briggs. “I’m guessing this election is a little bit of a litmus test for the governor’s race next year. It will be an indication of what people are thinking about the current administration.”

Legislative Republicans, several of whom were in Sagadahoc County on Tuesday in support of Benoit, said Democrats’ attempts to make Tuesday’s election about LePage was simply dirty politics funded by tens of thousand of dollars in special interest money.

“The Democrats spent so much money on negative advertising,” said Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport. “Unfortunately they went for gutter politics and trying to lower the bar.”

But Emily Shaw, an assistant political science professor at Thomas College in Waterville who leans Democrat, said any ire voters have against LePage is the governor’s fault and no one else’s. And if Republicans lose their seats next year, she said, a contributing factor will be their support of 78 of 83 LePage vetoes this year.

“Senate Republicans have been quite solid in defending his vetoes,” said Shaw. “That can’t be easy for them.”

Despite that, Shaw said reading too much into Tuesday’s election is perilous.

“Generally, local elections are local and state legislative seats are determined by people who connect well with their constituencies,” she said. “In this election there is only one seat on the ticket so it’s obviously not going to have the immediate down-ticket effect.”

Democrats said Republicans were on a downward spiral long before Tuesday. Since LePage’s election in 2010, Republicans have lost two special elections: Democrat Cynthia Dill handily defeated her opponent for a Cape Elizabeth-area Senate seat in 2011 and Christopher Johnson won a Lincoln County Senate seat over Republican Dana Dow in February 2012. Then in November of last year, Democrats re-took majorities in the House and Senate after two years of Republican rule.

Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant was quick to link those Democratic victories to LePage in the past, but not on Tuesday. Instead, he focused on Democratic ideology.

“Voters know Democrats are the only ones truly fighting for Mainers in Augusta, and the folks in District 19 sent another champion of working people to the State House,” said Grant. “Our ground game is unparalleled and we can’t wait until 2014 when we can activate it across the entire state.”

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