AUGUSTA, Maine — A handful of prominent Democrats are teasing runs for the Maine Senate in 2016, setting up a slate of potential battleground races in the party’s bid to win back the majority it lost in 2014.

Among them are former Maine Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash and House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. Jonathan Fulford of Monroe, who nearly beat Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, in 2014 said he also is considering a run, as is Rep. Henry Beck, D-Waterville, for the seat held by Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton.

Maine has gone Democratic in each presidential election since 1992, but the road to a majority Senate will run through rural parts of Maine where Democrats have struggled in recent years.

Back and forth

Next year brings a presidential election, when Democrats hope to flip the Republican majority and defend a slim majority in the House of Representatives, but that could be hard.

Control of the Senate has seesawed in each of the past three legislative election cycles. After years of slim Democratic majorities — and one session in which the 35 Senate seats were split 17-17 with one independent — Republicans seized a majority in 2010.

During the 2012 presidential election year, Democrats regained a Senate majority aboard the coattails of Barack Obama’s successful re-election campaign. In 2014, Republicans rode Gov. Paul LePage’s coattails to a 20-15 advantage.

In 2014, LePage carried rural areas on his way to re-election, winning all but one county — Hancock — in the more sparsely populated 2nd Congressional District, where Republican Bruce Poliquin won a U.S. House seat held by Democrats for the 20 previous years.

Lizzy Reinholt, a Democratic strategist from Stratton, said rural candidates such as Jackson and McCabe — who have been endorsed in past legislative races by the National Rifle Association — help to “build a bigger-tent party,” which Democrats need coming out of their losses and ahead of a crucial 2018 gubernatorial race.

“The ability to recruit strong, rural Democrats is going to be really important for us moving forward in the 2nd Congressional District and when it comes to running candidates in statewide races,” she said.

The money race

Jackson is taking an unusual step for someone who isn’t in the Legislature: He has formed a leadership political action committee and has been raising lots of money to support other legislative candidates.

State election records show that his political action committee, Focal Point, raised nearly $11,000 by September’s end. But he said that total is now more than $50,000.

By the October totals, that would put Jackson’s PAC in second place in money raised this year, only behind Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who can’t run for re-election in 2016 because of term limits.

Such a total often signifies a run for leadership and, in an interview, Jackson said he also is considering a run for Senate president if he wins and Democrats win the majority, but he said before that, he wants to ensure that Democrats win a majority.

He conceded that Republicans have won messaging battles around welfare and improved their image with some working-class people, but that Democrats’ pro-union policies would benefit rural areas most.

“I do think we need to turn that around and not be scared to let people know that we’re fighting for them,” he said.

Democrats are leading in the money race for next year’s legislative elections. In both chambers, their campaign committees raised $429,000 to Republicans’ $94,000 through September.

But Thibodeau, who is serving his third term in the Senate and first as Senate president, has played down that gap and his chamber’s rift with LePage, saying Republicans will find candidates who match their varied districts. They did that well in 2014, with Amy Volk of Scarborough, Linda Baker of Topsham, Eric Brakey of Auburn and David Woodsome of North Waterboro beating Democratic incumbents. Those seats could be competitive again.

Courting working people

When Charlie Webster chaired the Maine Republican Party between 2008 and 2012, he had bumper stickers printed that read, “Working People Vote Republican.”

In this year’s special House elections, he helped on the two successful Republican campaigns, and he said there’s an “anti-big government and anti-welfare” sentiment that will help his party in 2016, which he expects to be a Republican year in Maine, especially in rural areas.

“There’s an anger out there that’s bubbling up under the surface, and it’s going to benefit Republicans because we represent the working people,” he said.

McCabe is popular in his House district in Skowhegan and part of Madison, winning more than 60 percent of votes in his last two elections. But the Senate district stretches from the Kennebec County town of Rome to the top of Somerset County, and the incumbent, Republican Rodney Whittemore, won 63 percent of votes in 2014.

Jackson’s district won’t be easy, either: He beat Republican Peter Edgecomb, who now holds the seat, by three percentage points in 2012 before leaving the seat to run unsuccessfully for Congress in 2014.

But maybe it’ll just take a different type of candidate: In an interview, McCabe touted his “strong record on sporting issues and gun issues,” saying “any party can become too narrowly focused” and that when he talks to constituents, he can discuss any issue.

“I think it’s actually a good brand statewide, to be honest,” McCabe said. “In 2016, I may run for the Senate; in 2018, who knows what I’ll run for?”

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...