AUGUSTA – More than 130,000 Republicans voted in Tuesday’s elections, giving the party its strongest turnout for a gubernatorial primary in almost 60 years.
“This is the highest turnout in a Republican primary since 1952,” said David Emery of Tenants Harbor, a pollster who is a former U.S. representative from Maine.
“And I think 1952 was the highest turnout in history.”
The 130,928 Republican votes that had been counted by Thursday evening fell about 5,000 short of 1952, when Burton Cross — the eventual winner — was nominated for governor with 40.4 percent in a three-way race.
This year’s Republican nominee, Waterville Mayor Paul LePage, won 37.4 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s field of seven candidates.
The Republicans’ turnout was about 48 percent, while Democrats got 37 percent of their voters to the polls.
The Democratic turnout was 120,156, with all but five precincts reporting.
Pundits and party leaders credited Paul LePage’s message and grass-roots campaign for getting voters to the polls, coupled with a well-funded campaign to overturn the Democratic-led tax reform package in Question 1.
LePage’s volunteers handed out brochures urging people to veto the tax changes. Maine Realtors paid for TV ads on tax reform. And Republican candidates’ television ads drew close attention to that primary race.
Charlie Webster, the Republican Party chairman, said he told candidates to expect 90,000 Republican primary voters.
He said the turnout exceeded that by close to 40,000 for two related reasons, which had nothing to do with LePage.
“People were angry about the Democrats, angry about this new tax (code),” he said. “Many people said to me, ‘I’m going to go vote yes on (Question 1) and I’m going to look at the candidates and decide who I like.’“
Webster and others also credited LePage with drawing a crowd.
Dan Billings, a Republican political consultant, likened LePage’s strategy in the primary to Barack Obama’s in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
While candidates typically focus on likely voters in a primary, those two cast a wider net.
“What Barack Obama did was change the battlefield,” said Billings, who also writes a monthly column for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.
“What Paul LePage did was very similar. He turned out a whole lot of people around the state who don’t normally vote in primaries.”
The Democratic campaign coordinator, Arden Manning, said he also saw tea party activism as a force behind the high Republican turnout, LePage’s win, and the repeal of tax reform.
“Across the country, we’ve seen the tea party successfully nominate far right candidates,” he said. “On Tuesday, we saw the same thing in Maine.”
Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine, said that whenever there is a national sense of angst, as there is today, it benefits the political party that isn’t in control.