AUGUSTA, Maine — Leaders of Maine’s two major parties are gearing up for a vigorous election cycle in 2010 with contested races expected for all but a handful of the 180-plus seats in the State House.
Democratic and Republican candidates have successfully petitioned to have their names appear on the June primary ballot in all 35 Senate races. In the House, Republicans have fielded candidates in 150 of the 151 districts while Democrats have fielded candidates in 149 districts.
Maine Green Independents, meanwhile, managed to qualify 15 House candidates and three Senate candidates — the most ever for the party.
GOP leaders are hoping to chip away or even reverse their minority status in the Senate or House by tapping into anti-Obama sentiment the same way Democrats made gains in the state and in Congress by campaigning against President George W. Bush. Democrats hold a 95-55 majority in the House but only a 20-15 majority in the Senate.
“I think people are connecting the dots that there is a problem in Washington with one-party rule and that, oh yeah, the same thing is happening in Augusta,” said Rep. Josh Tardy, House minority leader and a Newport Republican.
Democratic leaders insist the party is well poised to maintain or even strengthen its status as the majority party in the State House.
“This is a year when things are swirling around in Washington, but we have seen no letdown at the local level of Democrats running for office, and I think that’s important,” said Senate Majority Leader Phil Bartlett of Gorham.
The Secretary of State’s Office received valid petitions on Monday from 426 candidates seeking their respective parties’ nomination this June for the 186 seats in the Legislature. Senate candidates were required to gather 100 signatures from registered voters within their districts, while House candidates needed 25 signatures.
In most cases, only a single candidate from each party filed paperwork in each district. But voters in several dozen districts around the state will get a chance to choose this June who should represent their party on the November ballot.
Two Democrats — Rep. James Schatz of Blue Hill and Lawrence “Skip” Greenlaw of Stonington — plan to seek their party’s nomination to fill the District 28 Senate seat now held by Democratic Sen. Dennis Damon of Trenton.
In the House, there will also be Republican primary elections in 20 races, Democratic primaries in 13 races and Green Independent primaries in two races.
Ben Chipman, candidate coordinator for the Maine Green Independent Party, said Greens are disappointed that Lynne Williams was unable to gather the 2,000 signatures needed to make it onto the gubernatorial ballot.
“But on the other hand, a lot of people were focused on finding candidates for the legislative races,” Chipman said.
Among local races, the following districts will require both Democratic and Republican primaries in June unless candidates withdraw before then: District 37 (Hancock County), District 45 (Waldo County) and District 50 (Lincoln County).
Several other House primaries to watch include:
• A Democratic matchup between current Rep. Steven Butterfield and former Rep. Patricia Blanchette in Bangor’s District 16.
• A contest between Democrats Rep. Richard Blanchard and James Dill, both of Old Town, in District 14.
• A Republican showdown between the Rev. Bob Emrich of Plymouth, who led the campaign to ban same-sex marriage last year, and Kenneth Fredette of Newport in District 25.
• A Republican contest between Rep. Kimberley Rosen of Bucksport and Richard Campbell of Orrington in District 40.
Tardy, the House minority leader, said this is the most heavily involved he has seen the Maine Republican Party leadership in recruiting candidates for legislative races. Tardy said all races are competitive, but he described one-third of the seats as tossups.
The only district where the GOP was unable to recruit a candidate was for the District 1 seat held by Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, the longtime former speaker of the House.
“We’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm from people who want to get involved in politics, and we are seeing people who want to be part of the Republican brand,” said Tardy, who is not seeking re-election.
“Our recruiting success bodes well for the prospects of electing a Republican majority in the Maine Senate this year,” Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry and the Senate minority leader, said in a statement. “It’s not just the sheer number of candidates, but the caliber of those candidates, that gives us encouragement.”
Bartlett, the Senate majority leader, said he believes Democrats will hold their own or even expand their majority in the Senate.
Rep. Seth Berry, a Bowdoinham Democrat who serves as the House majority whip, said he believes Maine voters look to elect state lawmakers who know their communities and will represent local interests well in Augusta. They are not typically voting on ideological issues or along party lines, he said.
So Berry agreed with Bartlett that he doesn’t believe voter frustration in Washington will have an impact on State House races.
“I don’t see it translating at the House level, frankly,” Berry said. “But we should never be overconfident.”
For a complete list of candidates who qualified for the June primary in local, legislative, congressional and gubernatorial races, go to the Secretary of State’s Office site at www.maine.gov/sos.