AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats are still favored over Republicans to win the Maine Legislature, but Republicans have a path to keeping the crucial Senate majority chambers, according to a Bangor Daily News analysis handicapping all 186 legislative races.
Democrats are favored to win 16 Senate seats — two short of a majority but including three held by Republicans — to the GOP’s 13 with six more toss-up seats. Both parties have roads to a majority, but the Democrats’ is wider.
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On the House side, they’re favored in 78 districts — enough for a majority — to Republicans’ 58 with 15 toss-up races. While these contests are harder to read and hinge on local variables, Democrats look likely to increase their narrow majority with Republicans looking over-leveraged in some spots.
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The best news for Republicans is the strength of Democrats’ Senate advantage looks softer than it did in the BDN’s first set of handicaps in May. One Republican incumbent looks safer, two Democratic incumbents look more vulnerable and two Democrats look like less certain bets.
The biggest changes since that analysis? The June primary set the field, candidates dropped out and outside money poured in.
This October analysis is guided by voter registration data, past election results and nearly $3 million in outside spending from partisan groups.
Democrats have benefited from $2 million of that, and with no public polling, spending patterns give us perhaps the best look at the parties’ hopes, fears and priorities.
Democrats still look well-positioned in the Senate, but it’s not a sure thing.
The three Republican Senate seats in our Leans Democratic category may be most up for grabs.
— Freshman Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, is highly vulnerable, facing four-term Rep. Henry Beck, D-Waterville, in a race that has seen $372,000 in outside spending — more than any other legislative race and a squabble over policies dealing with Maine’s drug crisis. Democrats are all in here, spending $284,000.
— Former Maine Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, was in the Strong Democratic category in May, but his Republican challenger, Caribou City Councilor Timothy Guerrette, has proved to be an uncertain commodity in a seat held by Sen. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou. Outside groups are involved to the tune of $137,000, with $106,000 of it from Democrats. Jackson’s race has added importance with the archnemesis of Republican Gov. Paul LePage plotting a Senate president bid if Democrats win the chamber.
— Former Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, was buoyed when moderate Sen. Linda Baker, R-Topsham, was narrowly ousted in the June primary by Bowdoin conservative Guy Lebida, who was backed by LePage. It’s a swing district, so it’s still in our Leans category. But Democrats have received $87,000 of the $98,000 in outside spending in this race, with Lebida getting no help from Republican leadership. Virtually all of the money of the $11,000 in Republican money was spent on Baker’s behalf in the primary, since leaders saw Lebida as too conservative to win. It’s hard to win fighting one party and part of another.
Still, Democrats probably need to take at least three of our six toss-up seats for a majority. They encompass two Republican incumbents, two Democratic incumbents and two open Republican seats.
— The biggest fish on the list is Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who is facing a rematch with Democrat Jonathan Fulford of Monroe, who took him to a recount in 2014. It should be close again this time, with $190,000 in outside spending so far, $104,000 of it from Democrats.
— We’re leaving the race between Sen. Rodney Whittemore, R-Skowhegan, and House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, as a toss-up, although it’s nearly a Leans Republican. The closest of Whittemore’s past three elections was a 17-point win. But McCabe is his best challenger and Republicans have spent just $23,000 to Democrats’ $93,000 here. It’s still a race.
— Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, was probably safe until Republicans entered former U.S. Rep. David Emery of Tenants Harbor in July to run against him. President Barack Obama endorsed Miramant this week. This is a rare race where Republicans are outspending Democrats, at $45,000 to $17,000.
— Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, has won one special election and two razor-close general elections since 2012. This year, he faces Republican Dana Dow of Waldoboro in a rematch of the special election that was seen as an upset. Johnson should be given some benefit of the doubt for past wins, but his district leans Republican by 5 points. His party looks nervous, spending $158,000 to Republicans $64,000 here.
— Shenna Bellows of Manchester, a Democrat who lost badly to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in 2014, is facing retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Bryan Cutchen, a Republican from West Gardiner, and independent Joseph Pietroski of Winthrop for an open Kennebec County seat. Outside spending is low at $34,000 for Democrats and $11,000 for Republicans, but the seat is now held by Sen. Earle McCormick, R-West Gardiner, and it’s hard to tell where this will go.
— Former Maine Attorney General Michael Carpenter, a Democrat from Houlton, was looking good when Republicans nominated conservative Rep. Ricky Long, R-Sherman, over a moderate primary challenger. Carpenter nearly beat Sen. Michael Willette in 2014 and Democrats are on the attack, spending $151,000 to Republicans’ $25,000. But this is a conservative district and Long could get a bump from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, with a New York Times model saying Aroostook’s demographics favor Trump more than just one other Maine county.
Other notable races include:
— Democrats are spending scared to defend Sen. John Patrick of Rumford against Republican Lisa Keim of Dixfield to the tune of $201,000 to Republicans’ $57,000. This is because of Trump: Oxford was the most Trump-friendly Maine county in that Times model. We’ve moved it from Strong to Leans Democratic because of Democrats’ spending, but Patrick’s margins have tightened in each of his last three elections. Look to the west for Republican upset potential.
— Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, has won three terms in another perennially challenged swing district. We’re giving his seat Leans Republican status, but the challenge from Democrat Moira O’Neill of Surry has Republicans spending $66,000 to Democrats’ $43,000 here. Langley could go down and if he does, his party will probably have had a bad election.
— We’re moving Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, from Toss-up to Leans Republican in her race against Scarborough Town Councilor Jean-Marie Caterina, a Democrat. Volk’s district is almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans and her race was the most influenced by outside money in 2014, but the parties have basically pulled out this time, spending just $6,500. Volk beat incumbent Democrat James Boyle in 2014 and the environment seems to favor her this time.
Republicans look worse in the House, but these races are harder to get a handle on.
We’re envisioning a tougher road for Republicans in the House, but with a disclaimer that these races are intensely local and something weird will happen that we don’t expect. (Remember the shocking loss for Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, in 2012? He’s unopposed now.)
This is partly because we see five Republican seats as decent bets to swing Democratic, with just one Democratic seat going the other way and Republicans holding all but four of 15 toss-up seats. Democrats running for the House have benefited from $643,000 in outside spending, while Republicans have garnered $348,000 in outside financial support.
Here are 10 top races to watch in no particular order.
— Rep. Kevin Battle, R-South Portland, won narrowly in 2014 after a Green candidate got 10 percent of votes. City Councilor Brad Fox, a Democrat, now has him one-on-one in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 20 percentage points. We had the seat in Strong Democratic territory in May. With the only outside spending coming from Democrats to the tune of $425, we’re downgrading it to Leans Democratic. The environment is hard for Battle, but if he wins, it’ll be a testament to a unique relationship with the district.
— Democrats are working hard to out Rep. Michael Timmons, R-Cumberland, in favor of Democrat Dale Denno of Cumberland, who lost by just 16 votes two years ago. Timmons is bruised, as evidenced by a 2015 episode in which he was excoriated by his town manager over not voting to override LePage’s veto of a conservation bond release. This race is tops in the House for outside spending, with Democrats spending $24,000 to Republicans’ $5,000. We moved it from Toss-up to Leans Democratic.
— We’re awarding Leans Democratic status to two other Democratic challengers: Former Rep. Sheryl Briggs, D-Mexico, and Diane Denk of Kennebunk. Briggs is facing Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, in a district leaning Democratic by 10 points where Democrats have spent $18,000 to Republicans’ $5,000 to defend him. Denk is looking to oust Rep. Stedman Seavey, R-Kennebunkport, in a Democratic district where they have spent $17,000 to $10,000 from Republicans.
— The only Democratic seat in our Leans Republican category is held by Rep. Christine Powers of Naples, facing former Maine Republican Party Chairman Richard Cebra of Naples. Democrats have dumped nearly $15,000 in outside spending into the race to $10,000 for Republicans, who have a six-point edge in party registration.
— Money drops into two Aroostook County districts that led us to deem them Toss-ups. In Presque Isle, Democrats have spent $14,000 to defend Rep. Robert Saucier against Republican Harold Stewart III, a 22-year-old former University of Maine student body president. Up the road in Fort Fairfield, Democrats have dropped $14,000 to oust Republican Rep. Anthony Edgecomb and install Town Councilor David McCrea, a Democrat.
— Freshman Rep. James Davitt, D-Hampden, beat an incumbent in the heavily Republican district in 2014. We’re giving the seat Toss-up status as Democrats have spent nearly $14,000 to help him against Republican David Haggan of Hampden.
— A second rematch is on in Berwick between Rep. Beth O’Connor, a Republican, and former Rep. Joshua Plante, a Democrat. Plante beat O’Connor in 2012 but the staunch conservative beat him in 2014 in the Republican-leaning district. It’s a Toss-up with Democrats spending $18,000 to Republicans’ $10,000.
— Independent Walter Riseman of Harrison could be the non-party candidate with the best chance to win come Election Day with Democrats behind him in an unconventional one-on-one challenge against Rep. Phyllis Ginzler, R-Bridgton. It’s a Republican district, so we’re giving it Leans Republican status, but Democrats have dropped $12,000 against Ginzler to Republicans’ $9,000.