AUGUSTA, Maine — Back-to-back weeks of national political conventions fired up party loyalists, but they’re not likely to a exert major impact on Maine’s legislative contests this year.
Campaign workers and political observers generally agree that convention rhetoric, media eruptions — such as last month’s furor over Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment — and what’s expected to be a close, expensive contest for the White House will matter less than what Maine legislative candidates say when they meet voters on their doorsteps.
“I’ve been preaching in my campaign schools that legislative races aren’t won on party. They are won on work and service of candidates,” said Vic Berardelli, northeast regional chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus and author of “The Politics Guy: Campaign Tips.”
“If not in a heavily partisan district, go out and meet voters and get them to like you and trust you. … People will vote for you in a local race even if they’re not going to vote for your party’s [presidential] candidate.”
“Legislative races have traditionally been local races run on local issues,” agreed Emily Shaw, an assistant professor of political science at Thomas College in Waterville.
However, backlash against Gov. Paul LePage in the first legislative election since he took office, a rift between Ron Paul supporters and the Maine Republican Party establishment and two congressional races with clear front-runners could change that dynamic.
“Voters want to hold Gov. LePage accountable,” said Dan Roth of the Democratic Legislative Leadership Campaign in Washington, D.C. Roth cited a March poll that showed respondents more inclined to support Democrats than Republicans in Maine’s legislative elections and the November 2011 people’s veto of a bill that would have eliminated Election Day voter registration.
Shaw doubts how much impact LePage will have on this year’s legislative races. “What the governor does doesn’t necessarily affect legislative races in Maine,” she said.
The notion that disgruntled supporters of Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s failed Republican party presidential bid might sit out this year’s election, thereby damaging the GOP’s chances in close legislative races, also seems to be wishful thinking from Republican party detractors.
“Nothing that happened at the [Republican national] convention would have affected legislative candidates,” Berardelli said.
“What’s most important to me is getting local candidates elected. I’m not thinking about presidential politics,” said Jonathan Pfaff, a Ron Paul supporter from Portland and one of the drafters of a set of resolutions critical of the state and national party’s invalidation of state convention votes in May.
The conflict between Paul forces and Maine Republican Party officials is not likely to have a tremendous impact on legislative races, “largely because there is not a strong association between Maine GOP and Mitt Romney,” Shaw said. “Nobody has tied themselves so strongly to Romney as to make an internal schism that Democratic candidates could exploit.”
Republican legislative candidates without strong ties to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney could benefit from that distancing because “Paul supporters might see the state party as a victim of national GOP bullying,” said Ronald Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine.
Polling done after the June primary showed incumbent U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, with a big lead over Republican challenger Jon Courtney and independent Angus King well ahead of five challengers for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe.
While Courtney has yet to attract much financial support from out-of-state sources, a number of outside interests, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and national political action committees, have run ads designed to shrink King’s lead. If those efforts fizzle, national campaign funding earmarked for Maine could be redirected to legislative races.
Democrats contend that the Virginia-based Republican State Leadership Committee’s expenditure of $400,000 for negative ads in five targeted Maine Senate races late in the 2010 campaign helped swing control of the Senate to the GOP. If two of the three congressional races in Maine this year are perceived to be done deals, a similar infusion from national financial backers of either the Democrats or Republicans could be seen as a worthwhile investment in control of the Legislature.
Shaw said national interest in Maine legislative races is “unlikely to be quite as hot as 2010” because “there are other places for the money to go.” National PACs could shift focus to other states entirely and not spend in Maine if Pingree and King appear to be locks to win the 1st District and U.S. Senate races, respectively.
“When races become strategically important to organizations, that’s where the money will flow,” she said. “It’s being weighed against other priorities.”
Another risk, according to Shaw, is that the “influence of national PAC money will affect the tone of legislative races.” In local contests traditionally viewed as a choice between neighbors, financial support from a national PAC — sometimes without knowledge of the candidate — could backfire and spur Maine voters to opt for candidates who appear less beholden to national organizations, especially during a year when dissatisfaction with the political establishment is so high.
The incoming 126th Legislature will tackle legislative redistricting, which elevates the political stakes for this year’s Maine House and Senate races.
Going into the fall campaign, “Republicans have an advantage” in retaining control of the Legislature, Shaw said, because “it’s much easier for an incumbent to remain in power.” That might spur national groups that supports Democrats to “see legislative races as a more likely place to get a better investment,” she said.
Complicating that challenge will be the fact that Democrats did not field candidates in nine House races and two Senate contests, one of which, District 12, was held by Democrat Bill Diamond for the past eight years.
Republicans did not field candidates in one Senate race and three House contests.
Republicans currently hold a 77-71 advantage in the House and a 19-15 advantage in the Senate. One independent legislator serves in each chamber.
A tight contest between Democrats and Republicans for control of the Legislature could increase greatly the power of any independent elected this November, as was the case in 2000, when Democrats and Republicans won 17 Maine Senate seats each, placing independent Sen. Jill Goldthwait of Bar Harbor in the position of power broker.
Robert Long is a political analyst for the BDN.