Tuesday’s massive turnout of voters forced some changes in the political landscape at the State House, but the actual balance of political power remained too close to call early Wednesday morning.
Republicans have had high hopes throughout this year’s campaign season, vowing to regain control of the Senate and to make major advances in the House of Representatives.
“At this moment we’re confident that the voters are going to send a message to the Legislature that we need to lower taxes and that Republicans can be the vehicle for change,” said Dwayne Bickford, executive director of the Maine Republican Party. “Voters are frustrated that Augusta hasn’t addressed the issues that are important to them.”
Unofficial results Tuesday evening seemed to indicate a few major upsets in the works in the Senate. In the Augusta area, termed-out Republican state Rep. Julie O’Brien of Augusta was leading veteran lawmaker and former House Speaker Libby Mitchell, D-Vassalboro. Republican Dana Dow of Waldoboro was outpacing Democratic incumbent Sen. Christopher Hall of Bristol in Senate District 20. And in Auburn, termed-out state Rep. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, appeared to be winning her bid to unseat incumbent Sen. Neria Douglass, D-Auburn.
Still, Democrats also made some major advances. Phillip Bartlett, D-Gorham, was the unofficial winner in District 6, defeating GOP incumbent Sen. Carolyn Gilman, of Westbrook. In District 28, Democratic incumbent Dennis Damon of Trenton appeared to have beaten back an attempt by John Linnehan Jr., R-Ellsworth, a businessman who self-funded his own campaign for an amount expected to exceed $200,000.
Bickford maintained that Maine voters are discouraged by the inability of a Democratic House, Senate and governor to craft and pass substantive tax reform in Maine, a failure he said opened the doors for the Palesky tax cap initiative. The GOP has urged voters in numerous radio and newspaper ads to hold Democrats accountable for the lack of progress and elect Republicans to the Legislature.
Rick McCarthy, a Democratic Senate campaign staffer, said Bickford couldn’t be more wrong. He insisted the slate of Democratic Senate candidates before the voters put the party “in good shape to retain the majority.” In addition to some newcomers, the Democrats also have recruited veterans such as former House Speaker Libby Mitchell of Vassalboro and former Secretary of State Bill Diamond of Windham to run for Senate seats.
McCarthy rejected GOP criticisms of the party for failing to attract “new faces” to the State House and instead argued that legislative term limits necessitated the recruitment of seasoned candidates who can quickly move into leadership positions if necessary.
“We’ve been talking a lot about term limits and the problems it creates and it really does keep the Legislature at a disadvantage because the only folks with institutional memory are the representatives of the administration and the lobbyists,” he said. “Incoming freshmen do not have fair footing because they don’t have the history.”
MaryEllen FitzGerald of the polling firm Critical Insights in Portland said Tuesday the huge interest in the presidential election could spark a departure from Mainers’ traditional habit of voting for “the person rather than the party.”
“The days of blindly following the party mandate have been over in Maine for quite some time,” she said. “In this election, however, the party lines have been so carefully and emotionally drawn that it is much more likely that we will see party-line voting. Independents who choose to vote Republican for president are going to be more apt to let that decision guide their other choices, based strictly on party philosophy.”
Republicans have not controlled the 35-member Senate since 1995 when they elected the late Jeffrey Butland as president for a brief two years. Democrats rallied and regained control in the fall of 1996, but the balance of power has remained precarious. At times, with an independent member in the Senate, the division between the parties has been 17-17-1. Democrats now hold an 18-17 advantage over Republicans.
Republican campaign activists think they have 19 seats locked up this year and could gain as many as 21 or more. Because of term limits, or personal reasons, 14 incumbents will not be returning to the Senate, leaving open seats where the races become more fluid. Eight of the incumbents were Republicans, but seven of those vacancies have been challenged by sitting GOP House members who want to move up to the Senate as compared to only four sitting House Democrats who have chosen to stage Senate campaigns.
Another factor that injected some uncertainty into the Senate campaigns stems from a Maine Supreme Judicial Court that redrew the boundaries of the old districts to reflect changes in population over the last 10 years. In one high-profile race, the court placed two incumbents – Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, and Sen. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway, – in the same district. Republicans and, even some Democrats, feel the newly drawn district favors Davis who retained more of his original district than Stanley.
In the House, 58 Democratic and 45 Republican incumbents sought re-election along with one Green Independent incumbent and an unenrolled incumbent. That left 46 open seats that were largely contested evenly by both parties. There are five unenrolled candidates besides the incumbent and 19 new Green Independent Party candidates.
The Democrats’ fight to hang onto their 80-seat majority is spearheaded by House Democratic Floor Leader John Richardson of Brunswick. While he concedes Republicans could improve on their 66-seat bloc in the House, Richardson doubts the GOP will be able to come close to their margins of the mid-1990s when the majority was so close, the actual determination sometimes could not be made until after the morning quorum call.
He flatly rejected the premise that Maine voters hold Democrats responsible for failing to deliver tax reform this year and said voters understand that both parties collectively are responsible for what happens at the State House.