AUGUSTA, Maine — The buzz in political circles before Tuesday’s special election in the Rockland area was that the GOP’s heavier campaign spending and momentum from Gov. Paul LePage’s convincing re-election would send Republican James Kalloch to the Legislature, narrowing the Democrats’ grasp on the House.
Instead, Democrat Anne Beebe-Center fended off challenges from Kalloch and two other candidates to win the District 93 seat by 145 votes, according to unofficial results. Beebe-Center replaces Democrat Elizabeth Dickerson, who resigned just weeks after winning a second term in November.
This is one seat among 186 in the Legislature and the election had no effect on the balance of power in the House, but it does serve as a temperature check on the political landscape in Maine.
Why it looked like the seat would go Republican
Spending on Kalloch’s campaign doubled that for Beebe-Center. As of the day before the election, more than $30,000 was spent on behalf of Kalloch, compared with about $15,000 for Beebe-Center. Those totals dwarfed spending on the other two candidates. Kalloch raised $6,647 on his own. The rest came from the Maine Republican Party ($13,500) and a political action committee formed for his sole benefit ($10,000). Kalloch raised just $475 for his bid for the seat last November, which was supplemented by $1,125 from outside sources.
The Maine Republican Party had faith in Kalloch. Kalloch, operator of Penobscot Ferry and Transport, lost to Dickerson, a former Rockland city councilor, by just 132 votes, 1,744 to 1,612. Maine GOP Chairman Rick Bennett said that close finish — along with his contention that voter resentment and a sense of abandonment caused by Dickerson’s sudden resignation would hurt the new Democratic candidate — created an advantage for Kalloch.
Kalloch also gained name recognition during the campaign for last November’s general election, which made him more familiar to voters.
Why Beebe-Center won
Democrats ran an effective political ground game for a candidate with deep roots in the community. As a former Knox County commissioner, business consultant, co-founder of the Knox County Homeless Coalition and manager of the Penquis Community Action program, Beebe-Center is familiar to many Rockland voters. She focused much of her campaign touting that she is a coalition-builder.
Much of the money in Beebe-Center’s campaign was spent on door-to-door canvassers, for which there is no substitute, especially in special elections where the campaign is truncated and turnout traditionally has been lower.
There are more Democrats than Republicans in the district. There are 6,184 registered voters in Rockland and Owls Head, of which 2,235 are unenrolled. That leaves 2,006 Democrats, 1,699 Republicans and 244 members of the Green Independent Party. Republicans would have had to win over a greater percentage of unenrolled voters to offset the Democrats’ advantage, which is intensified in a special election.
The seat has been in Democratic hands for 10 years. The last Republican to hold the seat was Deborah McNeil, who did not seek re-election in 2004. Between then and now, the seat was represented by Ed Mazurek, a well-known local school teacher and coach who served four terms in the House followed by one term in the Senate. Mazurek, who trounced his Republican opponent 2-to-1 in his final election to the House in 2010, announced in February 2014 that he would not seek re-election to a second term in the Senate.
Republicans have a poor track record in recent special elections. Since 2010, Republicans have made major gains in Maine. They took majority control of the Legislature in 2010, lost it in 2012, and regained the Senate in 2014. LePage was elected and then re-elected and Republican Bruce Poliquin was sent to Congress by 2nd District voters last year. However, special elections are not the GOP’s strength. Democrats have won four out of six special elections since LePage was elected, including Eloise Vitelli for Senate in 2013; Christopher Johnson for Senate in 2012; Cynthia Dill for Senate in 2011; and Kim Monaghan-Derrig for House in 2011. During LePage’s tenure, Republican Raymond Wallace won the House District 24 seat in 2011 and Beth Turner won the House District 11 seat in 2011. Democrats have won 10 of 15 special elections that have been held since 2000.
Did LePage make a difference?
LePage’s proposed biennial state budget was a major campaign issue. LePage’s $6.57 billion proposed budget, which hinges on sweeping tax reforms, is the biggest and one of the only things that has changed on Maine’s political landscape since the November election. Republicans have been slow to embrace provisions in the plan that raise sales and use taxes, as well as proposed new tax levies on large nonprofit organizations. Democrats who have supported similar reform proposals in the past have attacked the LePage plan, particularly a provision to slash the income tax rate, because they say it hurts the middle class and will lead to severe state budget shortages starting two years from now.
Kalloch and Beebe-Center did not mince words about LePage’s proposal. Beebe-Center raised numerous concerns about it during the campaign, including that it would rob funding that would otherwise go to schools and economic development programs, and that it would put upward pressure on property taxes. Kalloch said that not only does he support LePage’s budget proposal, but that he supports LePage’s stated long-term goal of eliminating Maine’s income tax altogether. That makes him one of the relatively few Republicans in Maine who have voiced public, full-throated support of LePage’s tax reform plan.
What’s it mean? It’s easy to put too much stock in or extract too much meaning from a single House seat election, but Beebe-Center’s victory represents a boost for the Maine Democratic Party, which hasn’t had much to celebrate recently. LePage and Republicans have their necks exposed as the Legislature debates the tax reform proposal, similar versions of which have failed more than once in recent years.
The governor is counting on pressure from voters to sway legislators to support his tax overhaul. Tuesday’s House District 93 outcome highlights the challenge he faces in getting that message to voters outside his core group of supporters.
BDN reporter Stephen Betts contributed to this report.