AUGUSTA — Maine legislators took major steps to cut back Medicaid last session, but whether the momentum will continue in the coming term depends in large part on which party gains control of the State House on Election Day.
Both major parties predict they’ll emerge with House and Senate majorities, but whether Republicans will continue to hold sway or the Democrats will take control is anything but clear. Legislative races are decided on a diverse matrix of local and state issues, polls in small House districts of 8,000 or so people are unreliable, and voters are finicky.
Gov. Paul LePage is “carefully considering” more welfare cuts to keep expenses within an affordable range, while providing “a quality safety net” for those who need it, said spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
“Whether Democrats or Republicans are the majority, we still have to balance the budget. We have to rein in spending and in order to do that, reform is needed in many areas,” said Bennett. LePage’s priorities won’t change regardless of which party takes change, but his strategy might, Bennett added.
Republican state Sen. Nichi Farnham of Bangor, who is seeking re-election, expects the Medicaid debate to continue, whether it is over extending cuts or restoring benefits.
“It’s always a good idea to review changes in the laws to see if they do what was intended,” Farnham said.
Democrats say they want to see no more cuts in Medicaid, which last session removed 19- and 20-year-olds from the program, known in the state as MaineCare, reductions in Head Start and Family Planning, elimination of state funding for home health care visits and other cutbacks.
“Democrats are focused on creating jobs and the economy – and not taking health care away from Mainers,” said House Democratic spokeswoman Jodi Quintero.
Independent House candidate Joe Brooks of Winterport said the outcome of the election could come down to who knocks on more doors.
“What’s resonating with people is personal contact,” said Brooks, a former three-term Democratic representative who faces Republican Leo LeChance of Winterport on Tuesday. No Democratic is running.
The majority Republicans have made much of their efforts to keep faith with voters over the past two years by slashing Medicaid costs, pushing through Maine’s largest-ever tax cut, overhauling health insurance laws and reducing the state pension debt. They even produced a slick 16-page summary of their accomplishments, titled “Promises Made, Promises Kept.”
While Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster said those claims may influence some voters, he believes his party’s real advantage is in the quality of candidates it recruited, whom he describes as “people who are your neighbors, a lot of blue-collar working class” individuals.
“We’ll keep the House and Senate and I think we’ll do it decisively,” said Webster.
Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said his party puts stock in the Maine adage that people vote for the candidate, not the party, and that’s why it emphasizes door-to-door canvassing, though he acknowledges that a lot of voters decide based on issues.
The wild card Grant sees in the Democrats’ favor resides in the Blaine House.
“There’s an aspect of this election that is a referendum of the first two years of the LePage administration,” said Grant, who said that how LePage’s policies are affecting Mainers, not the man himself, will be at issue.
One indication of the stakes of the election is how much money has been spent to win seats in the 35-member Senate and 151-member House.
In a Bangor-area Senate race, where incumbent Republican Farnham is challenged by Democrat Geoff Gratwick, independent sources have already spent $300,000. That’s about a quarter of all the independent spending in all of Maine’s legislative races in 2010, state election watchdogs say.
Third-party spending for all legislative races is expected to reach $2 million to $3 million this year, compared with $1.5 million in 2010, said state Ethics Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne.
Some of the other closely watched races pit incumbent Republican Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello of Poland against former Sen. John Cleveland, a former Auburn mayor; and Ruth Summers of Scarborough, Republican activist and wife of U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Summers, against Democrat James Boyle of Gorham.
In northern Maine, Republican Sen. Doug Thomas of Ripley is trying to fend off a challenge by 12-term Democratic Rep. Herbert Clark of Millinocket.
Republicans have 77 House seats to the Democrats’ 70, and there are two unenrolled members and two vacancies. The Senate has 19 Republicans, 15 Democrats and one unenrolled member. Until the 2010 elections, Republicans hadn’t controlled both chambers at the same time since 1974.