Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday called on newly elected legislators to “get to work for all Maine people.”
Unofficial election results show that Democrats will once again control the State House after being swept from power amid the Republican wave election of 2010.
In a statement congratulating candidates, LePage said they “must come together to find solutions to our fiscal challenges that will lead to the recovery of our economy and improve prosperity for hardworking families and businesses.”
“I stand ready to work with those who will put Mainers first and won’t allow the political rhetoric to continue,” he said.
Democrats claimed to have picked up 19 seats in the 35-member Senate with two races still too close to call. They appear to have 87 seats in the 151-member House, with the results in one race still unsettled.
Eighteen seats are required for a majority in the Senate and 76 are needed in the House.
Democrats say they have won 19-13-1 in the state Senate and 87-59-4 in the Maine House. If the current results hold, they will reverse the current Republican majorities in the House (77-70, two members unenrolled, two seats vacant) and the 19-15 advantage in the Senate (one unenrolled).
However, several of the races are still close and some could be subject to recounts.
If the results hold it will mean that Democrats would have the ability to check LePage’s policy agenda after having played defense for the past two years. Democratic lawmakers will also hold sway over the state’s constitutional officers, which include the secretary of state, state treasurer and attorney general.
The victories would also represent a comeback of sorts for a party that has often held the power levers in Augusta. In addition to being swept from power two years ago, Democrats have also struggled against independent candidates in top-ticket races. Their candidates finished third in the 2010 governor’s race and this year’s U.S. Senate race.
Early Wednesday morning, party leaders attributed their victory to overreach by LePage and the current Republican majority.
“This election was about working Mainers standing up for themselves and saying enough,” said Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant in a statement. “We heard them, we’ve got their back, and we’re ready to work.”
Democratic candidates flipped Senate seats in at least four districts, including District 32 in Bangor, the most expensive race in the most expensive legislative election in state history. So far, 23 Republicans were unseated in the House.
In addition, independent Dick Woodbury of Yarmouth appeared to hold off a stiff challenge from Republican upstart Chris Tyll, according to unofficial results.
Woodbury and Tyll were tied after six of seven precincts reported. Yarmouth, Woodbury’s hometown, appears to have lifted him to another term.
The Woodbury-Tyll race was significant on several levels. Woodbury, who caucuses with both parties, figured to be a key player if the Senate race resulted in a 17-17 tie. Tyll, meanwhile, was projected as a rising star in the Republican party.
The race also drew attention from advocates for Maine Clean Elections Act, which allows candidates to receive public funding to finance their campaigns. Recent changes to the law, by the Republican Legislature and the U.S. Supreme Court, were believed to have weakened it. Woodbury, who ran as a Clean Elections candidate, was initially besieged by conservative groups spending against him and supporting Tyll. The Yarmouth independent had just over $20,000 to spend on his race, yet outside groups had spent over $70,000 to bolster Tyll before OneMaine, an group started by 2010 gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, and another political action committee intervened on Woodbury’s behalf.
As of 11 p.m. Tuesday, Democrats’ biggest win was in Senate District 32, in Bangor and Hermon, where Democrat challenger Geoffrey Gratwick defeated Republican incumbent Nichi Farnham by an estimated 200 votes.
The Democratic pickup was bolstered by two other victories over incumbent House Republicans in the Bangor area.
Democrats also picked up Senate District 15 in Androscoggin County where candidate John Cleavland unseat Republican Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello. Democrat Colleen Lachowicz, hammered by Republicans in a series of mailings for her online gaming activities, defeated Republican incumbent Thomas Martin in Senate District 25, which includes Kennebec County.
Democrats also defended their Senate District 6 seat in Scarborough, a race targeted heavily by the political parties and outside groups. Democrat Jim Boyle defeated Republican Ruth Summers, wife of Secretary of State Charlie Summers, who also lost his U.S. Senate bid.
The news wasn’t all good for Democrats. Rep. John Martin, the longtime Democratic stalwart and former House Speaker, was reportedly downed by Republican Allen Nadeau in House District 1 in Aroostock and Somerset counties. Martin was renowned in Augusta for his mastery of legislative procedures which he used to outmaneuver opponents. Martin and his business interests were at the center of a pair controversies that may have hurt his re-election bid this year.
Outside groups spent close to $500,000 in District 32, making it the most expensive legislative race in state history during an election that topped $3.4 million in spending by parties and political action committees. The $3.4 million is also a record and more than doubled the $1.5 million record set in 2010.
Maine Republican Party Chairman David Sorensen said the District 32 race would go down as one of worst examples of politicking in Maine history.
Sorensen cited Democratic campaign mailers that claimed Farnham had violated Maine election law when she had in fact been cleared.
“It was a shameful example of political campaigning,” Sorensen said. “It was desperate.”
Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said that the District 32 race and several others were early bellwethers that the fight was pointing in the right direction. Grant said the party had hit its targets in picking up Republican held House seats in Gorham, Topsham and Bangor while protecting Democratic incumbents elsewhere.
Late Tuesday night, Republicans were not ready to conceded loss of either chamber. Sorensen said it was too early to tell much of anything.
“We’ve lost some seats but we’re also picking up a lot of blue (Democratic) seats,” he said. “There are a lot of surprises, but we’re very confident.”
Republicans have campaigned on finishing what they started in 2010. They enacted the largest tax cut in state history, although it’s not entirely paid for. A contentious overhaul of the state’s health insurance laws was passed, along with a charter school bill and initiatives to ease regulation.
The spending underscored the high stakes.
More than $100,000 from outside groups went into eight state senate races, including three races receiving more than $200,000 each.
In 2010, Democrats claimed that they were ambushed by national Republican groups, most notably the Republican State Leadership Committee, a Virginia-based organization that dumped $400,000 worth of negative ads into several state Senate races during the final week of the election.
The Republican committee returned to Maine this year, spending close to $800,000 according to the latest filings. However, this time Democratic groups countered.
The Washington, D.C.-based Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee was one of the largest contributors, with at least $405,000 going to Maine-based PACs. The group, bankrolled largely by national labor groups, gave just $81,000 to fund Maine races in 2010.
National labor groups also financed the most active Democratic PACs in 2012. Democratic groups used the additional resources on polls and advertising, but they also spent big on old school campaigning: voter canvassing and outreach.
The Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive activist group, shouldered a lot of the outreach, deploying volunteers to key battleground districts.
The alliance registered 520 new voters in District 15, an effort aimed at toppling incumbent Republican Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, of Poland. The group deployed the same strategy in 2008, helping Democrat Deb Simpson defeat Snowe-Mello by 104 votes.
Last week Republicans began grumbling about “shadowy” political action committees and outside groups.
By midday Tuesday, Sorensen released a statement claiming that the party faced an uphill battle. Sorensen blamed two things: money and the media.
“We have been outspent by the Democrats and have had to contend with some media outlets that are demonstrably hostile to Republicans,” Sorensen said. “The fact that we can, have, and will overcome these disadvantages speaks to the strength of the Republican message and the dedication of our grassroots volunteers.”
Sorensen specifically targeted one PAC, The Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class, which amassed over $500,000 to bankroll the alliance’s efforts and spend on political advertising.
S. Donald Sussman donated $10,000 to another PAC, Maine’s Middle Class, and more than $500,000 to Democratic groups and candidates.
Sussman is the majority owner of the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram and several other MaineToday newspapers.
While Republicans may have been outspent, they were not cash poor. The Maine Republican Party spent nearly $1 million on legislative races, and four conservative PACs were among the top 10 PAC spenders.
In addition to the corporation-funded Republican Leadership Committee, several Republican candidates received a late boost from Grover Norquist. The Republican activist’s Americans for Tax Reform group dropped $23,540 to bolster seven candidates on the eve of the election.
“For two years we’ve seen Governor LePage and this Republican allies push a partisan agenda that left our economy and the middle class behind,” said Rep. Emily Cain, the current Democratic minority who won her bid in Senate District 30 in the Orono area.
Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: