Attorney General Janet Mills jumped ahead in the race for the Democratic nomination to run for governor in early returns Tuesday night, but Adam Cote was also breaking away from the seven-candidate field.
Mills had about 33 percent of the vote according to returns collected through midnight, compared with 29 percent for Cote. The rest of the field had garnered less than 16 percent of the vote, but the results remained uncertain with ranked-choice voting tallies later this week holding the potential to sway the race.
But ranked-choice voting — new to Maine with this election — could alter the candidates’ positions in later tabulations, which are scheduled to start Friday under the oversight of Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.
It appears that former Biddeford mayor Donna Dion — with the fewest votes — will be eliminated, with her voters’ second-choice votes added to the existing first-place tallies. If no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote during that tabulation, the candidate ranked last after that count would be eliminated and his or her second-choice votes would be reallocated.
The race is crowded, but not as crowded as it could have been. In late 2017, about a dozen Democrats clamored to qualify for the ballot. The deadline for that passed in March and eliminated some of the hopefuls, leaving Maine with the seven-person race that culminated Tuesday.
Though the candidates agreed on most issues, some differences emerged and highlighted an ideological split between staunch progressives like Mark Eves, Betsy Sweet, Diane Russell and Mark Dion and other candidates — notably, Cote and Mills — who espoused more traditional and, in some cases, moderate stances.
The candidates participated in approximately 50 debates and joint forums during the past few months, courting an electorate that was for the most part not very engaged, as is usually the case in primary elections. The debates were mostly cordial affairs until fundraising totals began to show momentum for Cote, Eves and Mills and a poll released by the Bangor Daily News in early June showed Mills and Eves in front.
Still, nearly a quarter of the poll’s participants said they remained undecided and the poll quickly grew stale as the television, radio, social media and mailing expenditures began. Democrats have already poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the governor’s race and third-party groups have piled on more. For example, EMILY’s List dumped $300,000 into the race in June on behalf of Mills in ads that criticized Cote.
All of the candidates brought a heavy dose of anti-LePage rhetoric to the campaign, though it was not as fervent as it was in 2014 during LePage’s successful re-election bid. For his part, the governor has been more measured in the runup to the primary, though he ripped Mills publicly in May for a campaign advertisement he said distorted his record on cuts to the Medicaid program. Mills responded that her characterization that LePage booted “kids” was accurate because Medicaid rules refer to 19- and 20-year-olds as “children.”
There are clear repercussions in store if a Democrat wins the general election in November, including the fact that all of the candidates are fully supportive of Medicaid expansion and most of them want a single-payer health care system.
It might be several days before the primary winner is known. Dunlap has said that ranked-choice tallying won’t begin until Friday, after ballots and memory devices containing voter data are transported from municipalities across Maine to Augusta.
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