AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats should keep the Maine House of Representatives in 2016, with Republicans having to hold hard seats and make inroads in Portland’s suburbs, Down East and western Maine for a long-shot chance at a majority, according to a Bangor Daily News analysis.
That paints a bleak picture for Gov. Paul LePage in his last two years in office and would make it difficult for both parties to get much of consequence done in Augusta in 2017 and 2018, with Senate Republicans’ majority tenuous as they defend at least seven potential swing districts.
A presidential year could give these Republicans a difficult task: They relinquished both legislative chambers to Democrats after President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election and took only the Senate back in 2014, a big Republican year in Maine and nationwide.
On the surface, House Republicans don’t seem to have a big task: They’re down only 79-69 to Democrats, meaning a six-seat swing would hand them the majority. And they won two 2015 special elections to claim seats previously held by Democrats.
But an analysis of voter registration data, the current candidate slate and past results found 80 seats where Democrats may be favored to Republicans’ 60 in 2016. That doesn’t include 11 other races rated by the BDN as toss-ups.
There are caveats. We’re not sure this is the final slate of candidates — some assuredly are “paper candidates,” meaning they filed only so their party can replace them with another candidate later — and several races have primaries set for June.
So, while this could change, this is our best look at the current state of play.
Four Republican seats in the House look ripest for Democratic takebacks.
— The most vulnerable Republican may be Rep. Kevin Battle of South Portland. He beat a Democrat narrowly in 2014 in a race complicated by a Green Party candidate who garnered 10 percent of votes. The retired policeman is now one-on-one against Councilor Brad Fox, a Democrat. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district by nearly 20 percentage points. BDN rating: Strong Democratic
— Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, won a close 2014 race in a district that leans Democratic by nearly 10 points. But this time, the retired police chief faces former Rep. Sheryl Briggs, D-Mexico, who held the seat for three terms until 2014. BDN rating: Leans Democratic
— Rep. Stedman Seavey, R-Kennebunkport, may run a rematch of his 2014 race against Democratic National Committeewoman Diane Denk of Kennebunk. He beat her by 3 points in 2014. She faces a primary challenge from Laurie Dobson of Kennebunkport, best known for a gadfly independent U.S. Senate campaign in 2008, in which she called for former President George W. Bush’s arrest. The district leans Democratic by more than 4 points. BDN rating: Leans Democratic
— Rep. David Sawicki, R-Auburn, also faces a potential rematch with Democrat Bettyann Sheats, also of Auburn, assuming she survives a primary challenge from Candy Gleason. He won by 2 points in 2014, and the district leans Democratic but only by less than a third of a percentage point. BDN rating: Leans Democratic
Republicans also hold nine of 10 seats rated by the BDN as toss-ups.
In eight of these toss-up races, Republicans have to defend eight freshman members running in difficult districts, against former legislators or opponents or both, including:
— Rep. Brian Hobart of Bowdoinham, is facing former House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who couldn’t run in 2014 because of term limits in a district leaning Republican by less than 2 points.
— Rep. Brad Farrin of Norridgewock is facing former Rep. Ann Dorney, D-Norridgewock, who lost to Farrin by 7 points in 2014 in a district leaning Democratic by 1 point.
— Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, is opposed by former Rep. Jane Pringle, D-Windham, who served one term in the seat until 2014 in a district leaning Republican by 1 point.
— Rep. Michael Timmons of Cumberland, faces a rematch with Democrat Dale Denno of Cumberland, who lost by just 16 votes in 2014 in a district leaning Republican by more than 2 points.
— Rep. Matthew Harrington of Springvale, who lost in 2014 before winning a 2015 special election, is running against Democrat Nalbert Tero in a district leaning Democratic by more than 7 points.
— Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, is opposing Democrat Colleen Morton, the chairwoman of the Eastport Democratic Committee in a district leaning Democratic by less than 2 points.
— Rep. John Picchiotti of Fairfield, is being challenged Town Councilor Aaron Rowden, a Democrat, in a district leaning Democratic by 1 point.
— Rep. Karen Vachon, R-Scarborough, is opposed by Democrat Mary Starr of Scarborough in a district leaning Democratic by 2 points.
Two prominent Calais residents are running for an open seat: Democrat Anne Perry, who served four terms in the House, and Mayor Marianne Moore, a Republican. The seat is held by Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, who’s running for Senate, but it leans Democratic by 2 points.
One toss-up is held by Democrat Christine Powers of Naples. Former Maine Republican Party Chairman Richard Cebra, also of Naples, has filed to run against her in a district that leans Republican by nearly 6 points.
High voter turnout in 2008 and 2012, spurred by Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, delivered swing districts to Democrats during those years.With presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton registering record high unfavorability ratings in state and national polling, the presidential coattail effect may not be in play in 2016.
Control of the House for the next two years likely will be determined by grass-roots local campaigns, financially augmented by leadership political action committees.