Republican Charlie Summers and Democrat Cynthia Dill celebrated primary victories Tuesday within a few miles of one another.
However, with low voter turnout signaling a lack of enthusiasm, it remains to be seen just how far Summers and Dill have to travel to reach Angus King, the presumptive front-runner in the race to replace U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
At press time, 11 percent of the state’s registered Democrats had cast votes in a four-way primary. Approximately 13 percent of the state’s registered Republicans had participated in the six-way primary.
King quipped Tuesday night that he wondered how many voters wrote his name on their ballots. He was joking, but the low turnout suggests he may be onto something.
Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine, said the low turnout may signal that voters have already made up their minds about King, the two-term governor who left office with high approval numbers.
In Summers, Republicans have picked a familiar face with a formidable ground game. Democrats chose a feisty state senator.
It remains to be seen whether either can unseat King. Brewer believes Republicans may have the best chance.
“It’s clear that the Republicans are open to putting some money in that race because they think they may be able to snatch this thing from King,” Brewer said. “It speaks volumes that the Democrats don’t see a scenario where they can beat King.”
Summers took a different path to the primary victory. He rarely engaged in the hostilities that dominated the end of the campaign.
He saved that rhetoric for King. He said “a ferret” could have done a better job as governor than King.
Jen Webber, Summers’ spokeswoman, said Summers wanted to run a positive primary campaign. The secretary of state and three-time congressional candidate could afford to. He had the highest name recognition in the Republican field, according to two polls. Additionally, his rivals respected Summers’ ground game and voter mobilization effort.
The higher profile may have allowed Summers to weather a slow start. In the meantime, Webber said about 50 volunteers hit the phones supporting Summers for six straight weeks. The Scarborough resident also traveled extensively throughout the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts, rather than targeting just one.
Summers’ campaign appeared to be low on cash. However, campaign finance reports with the Federal Elections Commission showed he loaned his campaign $50,000 just before the primary.
It was not clear at press time how Summers used the cash infusion.
The formula was a simple one for the Bruce Poliquin campaign: Align the outspoken state treasurer with Maine’s outspoken governor. Poliquin and LePage occupy separate branches of state government, but the message and images projected to voters were that the duo was working hand-in-glove to reform Augusta.
“LePage supporters from 2010 are pretty much still supporters today,” said Tyler Harber, Poliquin’s campaign consultant. “Ideologically they are the same, so all we had to do was connect the two.”
Poliquin’s rivals knew the strategy was a threat. This year’s state convention was marked by discord as the party establishment battled against highly organized Ron Paul supporters who hoped to control the convention and send Paul delegates to the national Republican convention. The proceedings were testy.
However, the attendees – the base voters of the party – were united when LePage addressed the convention.
Poliquin wasn’t the only candidate to attempt to tap LePage supporters, but he may have been the boldest in his attempt to do so.
A campaign mailer pictured him and LePage, side by side; a television ad showed the governor bear-hugging the smaller Poliquin when he was elected treasurer.
Poliquin’s rivals pounced. GOP candidate William Schneider claimed the treasurer was riding the governor’s “coattails.”
Rick Bennett took the criticism a step further, saying during a televised debate that if LePage was Batman, then Poliquin was Robin.
Harber said that the attacks on his candidate showed the LePage alignment strategy was working. However, there was another dynamic in play, according to operatives from other campaigns.
Summers and Poliquin were perhaps the best-known candidates in the Republican field. Rick Bennett has been out of politics since 2002. His campaign was well-organized, comprising well-respected operatives like Brent Littlefield, Trevor Bragdon and Roy Lenardson. Bennett’s campaign knew the former Senate president had a lower public profile than Poliquin and Summers.
“Rick wasn’t the best-known or the best-funded candidate in the race,” said Chris Jackson, a spokesman for Bennett.
Jackson said Bennett proved that he could raise money but he couldn’t compete with Poliquin’s instant access to cash.
Said Jackson, “In a normal race the money differential would have sorted itself out over the final six months, but it’s a challenge to do that in three months.”
Bennett took another tack. He publicly challenged Summers and Poliquin.
The decision served two goals: to elevate public awareness and to chip away at Bennett’s rivals.
“We were trying to give people reason to turn to Rick,” Jackson said. “We tried to do that by separating Rick from the constitutional officers.”
Bennett’s campaign believed it had the most momentum heading into the primary.
But Summers ultimately had the best legs.
Spending money late was a strategy for several Republican candidates. On the Democratic side, the candidates had little money to spend.
The four Democratic candidates were considered second-tier by some political experts. The high-profile candidates chose not to run when King entered the race.
With little outside money to assist with the get-out-the-vote efforts and ad buys, the Democratic candidates resorted to different tactics. Cynthia Dill made widespread use of social media and primarily targeted the populous 1st Congressional District.
Monica Castellanos, a spokeswoman for candidate Matt Dunlap, said the former secretary of state hoped to separate himself with his message and appeal in the 2nd Congressional District.
Castellanos also hoped that Dunlap’s high number of small and medium campaign donations would translate into grassroots support.
But by Tuesday night, it was Dill who claimed she had the winning message.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: [email protected]