AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Republican Party has set up the 12-person presidential nominee race for its March 5 caucuses in which voters will decide who will lay claim to the state’s delegates.
But how Maine Republicans will allocate their 23 delegates to the party’s national convention is anyone’s guess. This is a reflection of national uncertainty around the GOP field, which at its peak of 17 candidates earlier this year was the largest in recent history.
Now, Donald Trump is leading polls nationally and in neighboring New Hampshire, home of the nation’s first primary on Feb. 9, but U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has surged to a slight lead in Iowa, the state where Feb. 1 caucuses will kick off the nomination race.
So, who can win Maine?
There are clues — historic results, donor totals, campaign organization, polling and endorsements — but none bring the picture into focus. Momentum from primaries in Nevada on Feb. 23 and a number of key states with large blocs of delegates March 1 likely will factor more heavily than the campaign ground game in Maine to date.
Four key points, however, are worth watching.
1. Jeb Bush has won over Maine’s donor class so far, and he and Rand Paul have family ties that could position them to win delegates. But their campaigns are faltering.
If past is prologue, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky could stand out among the field in Maine.
So far, Bush has amassed $128,000 from Maine donors, more than any other Republican candidate and nearly half of the $267,000 raised by all Republican hopefuls here as of September’s end. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina is a distant second at $58,000.
This makes sense: The Bush family is rooted in Kennebunkport, and Maine Republicans have been kind to the family in the past.
In 1980, they backed his father, George H.W. Bush, over Ronald Reagan, who won the nomination and the presidency. The elder Bush won the presidency in 1988 after getting Maine’s nomination and so did Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush, in 2000.
Paul’s father, Ron Paul, also has history here: Supporters of his presidential bid took over Maine’s Republican convention in 2012 to secure a majority of delegates, but it was challenged and delegates were split between him and Mitt Romney, who won Maine’s popular vote and the nomination.
These two scions, however, are running somewhat listless campaigns. Bush, the favorite at the race’s start, is polling fifth in New Hampshire. Paul is ninth. If this stands, they could be gone from the race by the Maine caucus.
Ted O’Meara, an independent political strategist from Yarmouth, who ran for Congress as a Republican in 1988 and chaired the state party from 1990 to 1992 before running independent Eliot Cutler’s 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial campaigns, said Bush would be the “odds-on favorite” in Maine 20 years ago, given his ties to the state.
But the party’s lurch rightward since the 1980s changes that calculus, he said. Bush is seen as less attractive to the wing of the Maine Republican Party that backed Gov. Paul LePage in 2010 and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of the 2nd District in 2012. He also holds little appeal to the libertarians who’ve stuck with the GOP despite what they believed to be the raw deal Ron Paul delegates endured in 2012.
Bush has the backing of moderate U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who polls as Maine’s most popular politician, but there’s little evidence to indicate her endorsement will translate to support among Republicans motivated to travel to a caucus in March.
“I really don’t know how to read it,” O’Meara said.
2. Campaigns are only now getting organized here.
Presidential campaigns are focused on the early states — particularly Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — but Maine has gotten early overflow this year. Republican contenders Rand Paul, Fiorina and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have stopped in Maine, as have Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton and her main challenger, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Four Republican state legislators are chairing the state campaigns for certain candidates: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton, Fiorina has Sen. Amy Volk of Scarborough and Paul has Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn.
Rubio may have the best Maine effort so far. He has only raised $6,500 from Maine, but Fredette said he has taken Maine Republican leaders on trips to New Hampshire to meet the candidate, whom he said is in a good position to pick up votes as the field narrows.
Saviello, Volk and Brakey said they haven’t been doing much organizing work on behalf of their candidates yet. It could pick up after the new year, but for now it’s hard to tell what the Maine campaign will look like.
3. Trump led Maine’s only public presidential poll so far, but his campaign is a wild card.
Only one poll reflecting Republican presidential preferences in Maine has gone public so far, and the leader was Trump, a firebrand who has called for a ban on Muslim travel to the U.S. after the terror attacks in Paris.
He earned 23 percent of Republicans in a September poll from Critical Insights, a Portland firm. Carson was at 13 percent, while Fiorina and Bush were at 6 percent. But it doesn’t tell us much. The survey sampled fewer than 150 Maine Republicans and the poll, politically speaking, is ancient.
It’s also unclear what Trump’s campaign actually is in Maine, aside from getting on the caucus ballot, which requires paperwork and a $10,000 fee.
His highest-profile supporter appears to be Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, but Trump has only collected $1,300 in Maine donations. Radiologist Stephen Madigan of Falmouth gave $1,000.
Trump’s spokeswoman and campaign manager didn’t respond to requests for comment. A Facebook page for Trump has been set up in Maine, but an administrator said in a message it’s “unaffiliated with the campaign and are unaware of any activity the official campaign might be doing in the state.” The person didn’t respond to a question about his or her identity.
4. Top Maine Republicans are supporting different people; key figures and constituencies are undecided.
Clinton has been endorsed by virtually all of Maine’s top elected Democrats, but it’s different among Republicans.
Collins endorsed Bush and former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and her husband, former Gov. John McKernan, donated to him. LePage endorsed Christie and legislators haven’t coalesced behind anyone.
Poliquin’s political adviser, Brent Littlefield, said he doesn’t anticipate an endorsement from the freshman congressman, and others are also holding out.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said he has heard from “a couple campaigns” looking for an endorsement, but he’s focused on “passing good public policy” and that any party candidate “would do a much better job than what the Democrats are offering.”
Bob Emrich, a Plymouth pastor who chairs the Christian Civic League of Maine and is a key voice on Maine’s religious right, said he’s leaning toward supporting Cruz but added that evangelicals who are anti-abortion and concerned with issues of religious liberty have lots of choices in the race.
He also said they’re energized to vote with “a seriousness that I have not seen before.”
“We view this as very desperate times,” Emrich said. “It’s very important to make the right decisions.”
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, is still deciding. He said Cruz and Rubio are “exhibiting some skills” and praised Christie’s help in getting LePage re-elected in 2014. He criticized Trump for bringing race and religion into the campaign and said he’s looking for a “kinder and gentler” approach.
“The danger is that it’s easier to throw out platitudes or timely comments, but a true statesman does what’s right when it’s not popular, not just what’s popular,” Cushing said.