Some Maine Democrats are getting nervous.
After losing the race for governor and both houses of the Legislature two years ago, the pressure is on to win at the polls this fall.
Party leaders say they are confident, in part because of hard lessons learned in 2010 and in part because the actions of Gov. Paul LePage and Republicans have energized the Democratic base.
But there are some signs that the state’s largest political party may be struggling to bounce back.
The party does not have candidates in 10 legislative races, including a Cumberland County Senate seat now held by a Democrat. And the Democratic nominee for Maine’s open U.S. Senate seat is polling a distant third, reminding some members of the painful third-place finish in the 2010 governor’s race.
“We have to look in the mirror and we have to find a new way to connect with people or we will become irrelevant,” said Ethan Strimling, a former Democratic state senator from Portland.
Nearly one-third — 32.1 percent — of Maine voters are registered Democrats, while 28 percent are Republicans. The largest block of voters — 36.5 percent — is not enrolled in either major party.
The state has voted Democratic in the last five presidential elections and is expected to do so again in support of President Obama in November.
Democrats have dominated Maine government since former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie led the party to prominence in the 1950s.
Strimling is among those who are openly worried that the losses of 2010 may turn out to be more than a speed bump for his party.
“We haven’t won a majority of the vote in a statewide race since 1988 when (Sen.) George Mitchell ran for re-election,” Strimling said.
Democrats such as former Gov. John Baldacci have won statewide races, but with less than 50 percent of the vote. On the other hand, Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have won with majority statewide support, and independent Angus King did it when running for re-election in 1998.
The possibility that Democrats could come in third in a second straight statewide election could be a blow to the party, according to Strimling and others. And some fear the 2014 race for governor could feature a rematch between LePage and independent runner-up Eliot Cutler, setting up Democrats for another uphill battle.
“If the Democratic Party comes in third in three statewide races in a row, that is really on the verge of being irrelevant,” Strimling said.
Maine Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, also is openly challenging his party to reconnect with voters.
Diamond is concerned in part because Democrats have already lost his seat. The ballot in District 12 will have a Republican and an independent but no Democrat.
“It’s a moderate-to-conservative district that crosses party lines regularly. It’s like the last place you want to leave without fielding a candidate — especially when the Democrats are trying to crawl back and take the majority,” Diamond said.
Maine Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, helped lead the effort to recruit Senate candidates and admitted the failure in District 12 is a disappointment.
“It is very challenging to go out and find candidates who want to run and who are good fits for the district” and can make the time commitment to serve, Alfond said.
But, Alfond said, the overall field of candidates for the Senate is strong.
“No one has a crystal ball but I am feeling very optimistic” about regaining the majority, he said. Alfond cited recent special elections, including one in February that gave Democrats a state Senate seat in Lincoln County that had been held by Republicans for a decade.
Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said he also is confident the party will regain control of the Legislature. The absence of candidates in 10 districts is not a sign of anything, he said.
“What’s important is how many candidates you have in targeted races,” he said.
Grant also said it’s too early for Democrats to write off the U.S. Senate race, let alone start worrying about losing the 2014 governor’s race.
“It’s easy to judge the (Senate) race now. What I’ve preached all along is patience,” Grant said.
At the same time, Grant admits the party needs a victory.
“There is a lot of pressure because the stakes are high. We didn’t have a good year in 2010. People were disappointed,” he said.
But the party has taken a hard look in the mirror and is already reconnecting to its values and to middle-class Maine voters.
“What came out of the soul -searching we’ve done is we need to continue to be the party that is pushing forward. We can’t be the party that’s just defending the status quo,” Grant said. “With the right candidates and the right campaign around them Democrats continue to run strong in Maine and will continue to in the future.”
Political scientists differ about whether Democrats have reason to be nervous, although it’s clear the legislative election this fall will be telling.
“To some degree Democrats are worried that the current situation is just going to run on into perpetuity. The danger in that is that the party is getting increasingly spooked,” said Ron Schmidt, associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine.
If the party remains haunted by the 2010 governor’s race, he said, “that could create a new reality in which the Maine Democratic Party is weaker. I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Political scientists also say the nervousness among Democrats has a lot to do with the unique circumstances of the Senate race.
King, the popular former independent governor, has become the de facto incumbent. However, if he hadn’t entered the race, a well-known Democrat would have run and the party could be excited about a potential Senate seat, said Emily Shaw, assistant professor of political science at Thomas College.
“There was totally a deference to (King),” Shaw said.
And, Shaw said, while the 2010 losses were a big shock to Maine’s Democratic establishment, it was something the party experienced nationwide. And it’s simply too soon to know if they can bounce back this fall.
“It was a really exceptionally strong (Republican) wave in 2010,” Shaw said. “I don’t think anybody knows how 2012 is going to go.”
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: