AUGUSTA – The fact that the partisan makeup of the Legislature has already been close in recent years and the lack of competition in the campaigns for Maine’s seats in Congress are two factors that help account for the relative quiet in Maine’s battle between Democrats and Republicans for control of the state Senate and House of Representatives.
Some participants such as Democratic Rep. Stan Gerzofsky of Brunswick maintain that contests in the state’s 35 Senate and 151 House districts are normally individual affairs anyway, not much influenced by big topics.
“If you like and trust him, you’re going to elect him,” Gerzofsky says.
Others say the effect on voter turnout of a statewide debate over the Taxpayer Bill of Rights proposal could affect legislative elections. The notion that concerns over Iraq or other national issues could be a motivator also has some currency.
But former Republican Senate leader Pam Cahill sides with Gerzofsky.
“I think it’s local. I think it’s a popularity contest,” she says. “I still think door-to-door is the best way to get elected in the state of Maine.”
With the state’s congressional officeholders seen as odds-on favorites to win again, debate on federal matters that may have riled voters elsewhere seems to have been muted here.
And while the jousting for legislative majorities is heated, the high level of competitiveness is not new and the party efforts to recruit strong candidates, hone attractive messages and pull supporters to the polls have taken on a workmanlike, grind-it-out routine.
Democrats now hold a 74-73 House edge over the GOP. The chamber also has one Green Independent party member and three independents. The numbers are close in the Senate, too, where Democrats have a 19-16 majority over Republicans.
A Democratic winning streak in general elections for the House dates to 1974. Republicans have held the Senate outright for only one two-year period since the 1982 elections, although in 2000, statewide voting left the Senate split 17-17, with one independent.
This time, aides to Democratic House candidates by and large profess optimism, several suggesting that Democrats can take more than 80 seats. At the same time, they say potential voters are not displaying much interest.
Other Democrats offer a more tempered view of their House prospects. Rep. Christopher Barstow, D-Gorham, says Democrats could pick up a seat or two.
Republican operative Dwayne Bickford, a former executive director of the GOP, draws on his memory of one particular election year to caution against simplifying a complex picture.
Ten years ago in the 1996 legislative elections, he recalls, the good news for Republicans was that they picked up nine Democratic seats in the House. Trouble was, for the GOP, the Republicans lost 15 House seats of their own, Bickford said.
“You just never know with the House. I think the elections truly are local,” he says.
Thirty-nine House incumbents are not seeking re-election, including 19 who are ineligible due to term limits.
Twenty-one of those not running are Republicans, 17 are Democrats and one is an independent.
Seven of those not seeking to return to the House are running for the Senate.
Maine’s era of term limits is once again enticing former legislators to throw their hats back in the ring.
The Republicans have fielded William Rogers of Brewer, John McDonough of Scarborough, Robert Carr of Sanford and Oscar Stone of Berwick for House seats.
Former lawmakers nominated for the House by the Democrats include Arthur Clement of Clinton, Albion Goodwin of Pembroke, Wendy Pieh of Bremen, Charles Priest of Brunswick, Sharon Treat of Farmingdale, Pamela Hatch of Skowhegan, Paul Tessier of Rockwood Township, Anne Haskell of Portland, Anne Rand of Portland, Peggy Pendleton of Scarborough and Bonita Breault of Buxton.
Deputy House Republican leader Josh Tardy of Newport, the presumptive speaker if the GOP takes House control, says voting in a relatively small number of districts will determine the overall outcome.
“I really think that both sides would concede that control of the House is coming down to 10 or 15 target races,” he said.
Often cited as among vulnerable House incumbents are Democrats Walter Ash of Belfast and Janet Mills of Farmington and Republican Kimberly Davis of Augusta.
On the Senate side, only one incumbent – Republican leader Paul Davis of Sangerville – is termed out, but six others – Democratic leader Michael Brennan of Portland, deputy leader Kenneth Gagnon of Waterville and Scott Cowger of Hallowell, and Republicans Chandler Woodcock of Farmington, who is the GOP gubernatorial candidate, Mary Black Andrews of York and Dean Clukey of Houlton – chose voluntarily not to seek re-election.
Key Senate races on virtually all observers’ lists are in:
. Senate District 32, composed of Bangor and Hermon, featuring Democratic incumbent Joseph Perry, Republican Frank Farrington and independent Eric Desmarais, all of Bangor.
. Senate District 21, stretching from Winthrop to Chelsea, matching Democrat Brian Rines of Gardiner against Republican Rep. Earle McCormick of West Gardiner, in the race to succeed Cowger.
. Senate District 19, matching former-Republican-turned-Democrat Arthur Mayo of Bath, who is the incumbent, against Republican Paula Benoit of Phippsburg.
Also closely watched is a three-way contest in Senate District 7 involving Democratic incumbent Lynn Bromley, Republican Rep. Kevin Glynn and Green Independent Keith Louis, all of South Portland.
Former legislators running for the Senate are Democrats Thomas Wright of Berwick, Gail Chase of Unity, Paul Hatch of Skowhegan and Sharon Libby Jones of Greenville, and Republicans Kenneth Lemont of Kittery, Walter Gooley of Farmington and Douglas Smith of Dover-Foxcroft.
Gerzofsky says Democrats may open up some breathing room in the House.
Cahill sees a likelihood of photo finishes in not only the House but also the Senate.
“I think it’s too close to call,” Cahill said. “Both.”