AUGUSTA – State Sen. Chandler Woodcock, a retired teacher and lay minister from Farmington, claimed the Republican nomination for governor Wednesday after his closest rival conceded the election.
“The time has come for us to make a change in the Blaine House,” Woodcock told supporters at GOP headquarters in Augusta.
“We have heard the message from the people and we’ve heard it clearly. Not just from Republicans, but from Democrats, independents and Greens. It is time for change and to renew the sense of trust in our own government.”
At the same event, state Sen. Peter Mills, a Cornville lawyer, conceded the election after an 11 p.m. concession Tuesday by the third GOP gubernatorial hopeful, former U.S. Rep. David Emery of St. George.
“With everything coming in, it looks as if I’m still down now by 1,800 votes with a total turnout of about 66,000,” Mills said. “On the basis of that tally, it appears to me that it is highly appropriate this afternoon for me to concede the election to Chandler Woodcock, for whom I have the greatest admiration.”
Both of the losing candidates united behind Woodcock and pledged their assistance to his campaign.
With 99 percent of 634 precincts reporting, unofficial election results tabulated by the Bangor Daily News divided Tuesday’s vote as follows: Woodcock, 39 percent; Mills, 35 percent and Emery, 26 percent. The 69,000 Republicans who cast ballots in the election represented about 20 percent of the party’s enrollment. While the turnout was down from the 2002 election, it was not dramatically inconsistent with previous primary efforts.
Woodcock, who opposes abortion except in instances of rape and incest or when the life of the mother is at stake, pumped up the GOP’s conservative wing at last month’s state convention by tapping into several litmus test issues in an attempt to capture the party’s far right.
“You know, from time to time, I do a little preachin'” Woodcock told the delegates. “I’m opposed to special rights, and I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. Case closed!”
His positions on issues like abortion, gay marriage and his support of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights tax cap energized many Republicans and got them to the polls Tuesday. But Woodcock insisted Wednesday that he had “never worn moral issues on my sleeve” in a possible attempt to reach out to a broader spectrum of GOP voters in the aftermath of the vote.
“I don’t think you’ll find those beliefs spearheading my campaign,” Woodcock said. He then challenged reporters who brought up the issue. “It isn’t a case of me putting those issues out to the people; it’s you [news media] normally raising them with us.”
When pressed on the point, Woodcock’s tone grew testy as he attempted to defend his references to gay rights in the convention speech.
“I was preaching to a very dedicated audience there – you know that as well as I know that – I have a voting record on the gay rights issue,” he said, describing the convention reference as “a spirited moment.”
Reacting to Democratic Gov. John Baldacci’s primary defeat of Chris Miller of Gray with 75 percent of the vote, Ben Dudley, state chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, had his own spirited moment Wednesday as he assessed Woodcock’s chances of defeating the incumbent.
“Chandler Woodcock won the Republican nomination with less than four out of 10 Republicans,” said Dudley. “Coming from the far right wing of the Republican party, Woodcock’s conservative credentials appealed to the conservative base of the Republican party. Woodcock is the candidate we wanted to run against. If you like George Bush, you are going to love Chandler Woodcock.”
MaryEllen FitzGerald, who owns Critical Insights, a marketing and public opinion survey company in Portland, said Woodcock “is kind of a George Bush candidate in a John Kerry state.”
“He’s a very traditional Republican candidate. He definitely will pose a clear choice to Baldacci,” FitzGerald said.
FitzGerald also pointed out that 25 percent – or 12,779 – of Democratic voters had cast ballots Tuesday for Miller – “an unknown” – as opposed to the governor.
“It probably should have been more like single digits,” she said. “But it seems to support our polling which indicates there’s a lot of discontent out there, and I think that’s what this is. When you have a sitting governor, you don’t really expect to have a race within his party.”
Assessing the GOP primary, FitzGerald attributed Woodcock’s victory to a light voter turnout and his campaign’s efforts to get his supporters to the polls.
Many GOP moderates stayed home and chose not to vote for Mills, who designed his campaign as a moderate in the mold of Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.
An early front runner in the race, Emery faded when he encountered difficulty raising money for his privately funded campaign.
He was outspent by his two opponents who ran as publicly funded candidates. FitzGerald said Emery also had to fight the perception of being a dated politician from the 1970s and 1980s who had not recently held public office.
With Baldacci facing Woodcock, Green Independent Party candidate Patricia LaMarche of Yarmouth, and publicly funded independent Barbara Merrill of Appleton – along with others – FitzGerald said there could be a significant division of the vote in November – particularly when considering a hot-button issue like the Taxpayer Bill of Rights will be on the same ballot.
“TABOR will pull in the voters,” she said. “It is a catalyst for turnout. While people may not have a strong opinion of any candidate … they will have a strong opinion on TABOR, and while they’re in the booth, they’re going to make a mark.”