September 22, 2019
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Primary results reflect split personality of Maine’s electorate

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, shakes hands with a voters at the polls in Portland on Tuesday.

PORTLAND, Maine — The nature of primary elections is that they’re a waypoint along the path to the real contests for elected office in the general election, though on Tuesday, some of the results brought closure for seasoned lawmakers and a new trajectory for others.

The two big winners for Democrats — Justin Chenette for a Saco-area Maine Senate seat and Ben Chipman for one of the Portland Senate seats — represent an up-and-coming young gun on one hand and a victory for someone who wasn’t even a Democrat until nine months ago on the other.

Meanwhile, Rep. Barry Hobbins of Saco and former Rep. Herb Adams of Portland, who combined have more than 40 years of legislative service, didn’t even make it to the general election.

Analyzing what is on voters’ minds based on Tuesday’s results comes with peril — other than measley turnout numbers that say most Mainers just didn’t care about the primary. But here are a few takeaways.

Let 2016 spur caution for anyone trying to predict Republican primaries in Maine, because they were all over the place this year.

In Maine’s 1st Congressional District, the conventional wisdom was that Ande Smith, a North Yarmouth lawyer, would dispatch Brunswick counselor Mark Holbrook in the Republican primary to face U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, in November.

On Wednesday, we weren’t sure who was winning. Unofficial Bangor Daily News tallies had Smith up by 61 votes. The Portland Press Herald had Holbrook up by 58. With such tight margins in a contest where more than 21,000 votes were cast, a recount will almost certainly determine the outcome.

But this probably shouldn’t have happened.

Smith raised $151,000 through late May and was the more polished candidate with a litany of endorsements, and Holbrook raised just $38,000. But Holbrook pitched himself as the more conservative candidate — including saying Smith has been “taken in by the giant hoax” of global warming. That can be powerful to a base of motivated conservatives in a low-turnout election.

Final turnout isn’t known yet, but it appears that about 17 percent of Republicans voted in Maine’s 1st District, just ahead of Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap’s statewide prediction of between 12 percent and 15 percent.

History indicates that votes with relatively low turnouts — such as the presidential caucuses in March — attract voters from the ends of the spectrum, drawing the most conservative members of the Republican Party and most progressive Democrats to participate in the nomination process.

Running from the right also worked for Guy Lebida of Bowdoin, who beat Sen. Linda Baker, R-Topsham, by 40 votes on Tuesday. Gov. Paul LePage endorsed Lebida, and Baker had support from local Republican figures and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport.

However, another LePage endorsee, Calais City Councilor Billy Howard, lost big to Rep. Joyce Maker of Calais, who got more than two-thirds of votes in their Senate primary in Washington County.

But electing Lebida probably makes Republicans’ difficult path to maintaining the Maine Senate even harder.

We’ve written about how Republicans have a tough road to keeping their 20-15 Senate majority. Why? The short answer is that we think it’ll be difficult for them to hold seats that they won in 2014 in Democratic or swing districts in a presidential year.

In Senate ratings issued in May, we said Democrats are favored to win two seats held by Republicans in 2016, alongside five toss-up seats that also are Republican now. After Tuesday, we’re moving one of those toss-ups to “leans Democratic.”

That’s the seat held by Baker, a moderate who beat Democratic incumbent Eloise Vitelli in 2014 only after a Green candidate took 10 percent of votes. Vitelli’s running again in 2016, and there’s no third candidate.

After LePage’s endorsement, Republican officials murmured behind the scenes that Lebida’s election would hurt their chances of winning. Baker was explicit on that, saying the district, which leans Democratic by three points, is “not a radical Republican district.”

Lebida rejected that, saying “there needs to be a difference between the Democrat and Republican candidates,” but he has to prove it. We’re skeptical.

It helps to be endorsed by the person you want to replace.

Political endorsements are plentiful in any race and often, the weight most of them carry is questionable. When special interest groups make endorsements, they’re usually of the predictable sort.

When sitting lawmakers and public officials endorse, their effect is limited to the smallish universe of people who know who the endorsers are. One possible exception to the notion that endorsements don’t really matter is when lawmakers make endorsements for their own replacements.

Though many factors were clearly at play, Democratic Sen. Linda Valentino’s endorsement of Chenette for her Saco-area Senate seat couldn’t have hurt. Chenette, with just four years of experience in the House, managed to pick off his primary challenger, Hobbins, who is seen by many as a de facto leader for legislative Democrats.

The lopsided result in the three-way primary for a Portland-area Senate seat, where Rep. Ben Chipman fended off Dr. Charles Radis and Rep. Diane Russell is an indication that the race was Chipman’s to lose. However, an 11th-hour endorsement by Sen. Justin Alfond, who holds the District 27 seat, was a clear dual message to voters.

In addition to voicing Chipman’s attributes, Alfond forcefully condemned some of Russell’s and her supporters’ personal attacks on Chipman, calling them gutter politics. That shone an even brighter light on a contentious campaign that was already attracting attention far beyond Portland.

There also is evidence to support the notion that endorsements don’t mean much. One of Russell’s biggest endorsements in her losing bid came from none other than Valentino.

 



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