Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and Rep. Sue Bernard, R-Caribou. Credit: BDN composite

AUGUSTA, Maine — The top Democrat in the Maine Senate is among the incumbents facing challenges with Republicans eyeing gains as early 2022 races take shape.

Next year’s election comes with thousands in new legislative districts after lawmakers inked a mostly low-key redistricting plan in September marked by a large population shift toward southern Maine away from the northern part of the state. While battleground areas will largely remain the same, it looks like some Democratic incumbents are primed for harder races.

Among them is Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who narrowly won his seat in 2016 but has easily won two elections against weaker Republican challengers since then. First-term Rep. Sue Bernard, R-Caribou, filed to run against him on Tuesday. Former state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, a two-time congressional candidate, also may run for his old seat.

The races will happen against the backdrop of the race between Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and former Republican Gov. Paul LePage. It could test Democrats’ trifecta control of both the Senate and House of Representatives. Last year’s election was a mixed one, with Democrats gaining one seat in the upper chamber but losing seven House seats. Republicans may see a better environment next year in a midterm election for President Joe Biden.

Bernard, who serves as the lead House Republican on the Legislature’s economic development committee, said she was motivated to compete on the bigger stage to advocate for small businesses and agricultural and forestry industries. She pointed to differences with Jackson on a bill allowing farm workers to collectively bargain, which she opposed.

“I’m not afraid of a tough race,” said Bernard, a longtime news director and anchor at WAGM in Presque Isle who now works for Northern Maine Community College. “People know Troy because he’s been in the Legislature for a long time, but they also know me because I’ve been in The County for a while.”

But Jackson will be a tough out having won his last two races easily in an ancestrally Democratic district that backs Republicans in many other elections. While he won his 2020 contest by 19 percentage points, former President Donald Trump lost there by 10 points.

The Democrat’s run of dominance should continue, said former House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, who now works for the Maine Service Employees Association, citing Jackson’s conflicts with Mills on labor and health care issues this year and his time warring with LePage during the Republican’s eight years as governor.

“A lot of people like someone in the House or Senate who will question whoever is in the Blaine House and put their district first,” he said.

Other top-tier races are emerging. Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, said Wednesday he is ambivalent about running for a third term, citing the time commitment. Another run for the retired doctor is possible, but he said “the pull of being fully retired is attractive.”

Claxton’s departure would spur a scramble for the Androscoggin County district that he won by just 235 votes in 2018. Brakey, who held the seat for two terms before vacating it that year to oppose independent U.S. Sen. Angus King, said he is all but certain to run. He will make a decision by year’s end since running will require him to leave his job with a conservative group.

Brakey, who also lost a 2020 primary to take on U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of the 2nd District, cited frustrations with the Legislature giving control to Mills to manage the pandemic and the governor’s health care worker vaccine requirements as reasons he may run.

“There’s so much suffering I’ve heard from people in the last two years,” he said. “We’ve got to turn things around.”

Only 14 Senate candidates have declared so far. They include Rep. Nate Wadsworth, R-Hiram, who is gunning for the newly-created Senate District 22 in parts of York, Cumberland and Oxford counties, a seat expected to be favorable to Republicans after former President Donald Trump won it by 13 points last year.

Another hotly contested race could come in the Augusta area, where Rep. Jeff Hanley, R-Pittston, is challenging Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, for Senate District 14. It was closely divided in the last two presidential races, but Hickman easily won a special election this year.

BDN writer Jessica Piper contributed to this report.