Just more than 9,300 people cast ballots Tuesday in the special election to fill the state Senate seat left vacant by Senate Democratic Leader Seth Goodall’s resignation.
How much those 9,300 votes in the Bath area can tell us about the attitude of Maine’s electorate at large in this political off-season is now the topic of intense speculation.
A special Senate election in Maine is about as local as high-level politics can get (save, of course, for Maine House races). A state Senate district covers a territory with just 36,000 people who are often deciding which neighbor should represent them in Augusta.
The special election in Senate District 19 offered voters a choice among Republican Paula Benoit, who had represented them before in the Senate; Democrat Eloise Vitelli, a political newcomer; and Green-Independent Daniel Stromgren, another newcomer to politics.
All things being equal, Benoit should have had an edge with her name recognition and a moderate political profile that fits what has become a swing district.
But all was not equal, and all was not local.
Both of Maine’s major political parties staked a lot on the outcome.
A win for Republicans would have moved the GOP two seats short of a majority in the state Senate after a damaging 2012 election cycle. They would have used the victory to claim Maine voters are disappointed in the Democratic majorities they elected last year to both chambers of the Legislature.
If Republicans had their way, the race would have stayed mostly local. Their efforts in the district focused largely on touting their own well-known candidate. The Republican Party and a handful of Republican-aligned groups spent more than $60,000 to help Benoit’s chances of victory.
But Democrats had a compelling strategy and an intense interest in making the election about more than Senate District 19. From the beginning, the Maine Democratic Party and Democratically aligned groups made the election a referendum on the leadership of Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
They tied Benoit, who previously worked for First Lady Ann LePage, directly to the unpopular governor. They spent much of their money on an anti-Benoit and anti-LePage strategy, rather than a pro-Vitelli one.
They also spent more money than Republicans: $96,000, according to expenditure reports filed with the Maine Ethics Commission as of Wednesday.
Democrats’ strategy worked — just liked it worked last November when the party claimed a string of Republican Senate seats after waging a campaign that labeled those GOP incumbents “rubber stamps” for LePage.
As long as LePage is in office, Democrats have found a proven way to boost their chances in competitive elections. Unfortunately, it involves lots of spending, and lots of spending removes the “local” from local politics as the messages of outside groups on both sides of the aisle drown out the voices of the candidates.
It happened last year as outside spending on legislative elections shattered previous records. Political parties and other political action committees spent more than $3.5 million on Maine’s legislative races in 2012, up from the previous record of $1.5 million, set just two years earlier.
The most expensive Senate race — in District 32, which includes Bangor and Hermon — attracted $454,000 in outside spending. There were seven other races that attracted at least $100,000 worth of third-party mailers, radio ads, canvassers and phone banks.
If there’s one conclusion to draw from Tuesday’s Senate District 19 contest, it’s that competitive races show no sign of becoming less expensive. In the last special Senate election, in February 2012, Republican and Democratic forces spent almost $30,000 on a competitive Senate seat representing Lincoln and Knox counties, compared with the more than $150,000 they spent on Tuesday’s race.
As local races become more expensive, they become less local.