AUGUSTA – On the eve of a special election Tuesday to elect the next state senator to represent Sagadahoc County and Dresden, party officials hedged on expectations for their candidates.
Each party has something going for it: The Republican, Paula Benoit of Phippsburg, held the Senate District 19 seat from 2006 to 2008, but Democrats have held it since then and boast a slight demographic advantage in the district, which bodes well for their hopeful, Eloise Vitelli of Arrowsic.
“The thing about this race is it’s a Democratic seat and it’s up to the Democrats to defend this seat,” said Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party. “We feel like we have a good candidate.”
There is a wild-card candidate in the race as well, Topsham’s Daniel Stromgren of the Green Independent Party, who last week rejected the notion that he’s a spoiler in the race.
In 2008, Benoit was beaten by 162 votes by Richmond’s Seth Goodall. He widened his margins of victory in 2010 and 2012 and amassed clout as an Augusta dealmaker, serving as Senate majority leader in the past legislative session.
Goodall resigned in July after being appointed director of the Northeast offices of the federal Small Business Administration, setting in motion the special election for the seat.
As of Friday, Democrats and their allies had spent more than $96,000 in independent expenditures to bolster Vitelli’s bid, with more than $78,000 coming from the state party committee.
Lizzy Reinholt, spokeswoman for the Maine Democratic Party, said the party had to spend quickly to educate the public about Vitelli, noting the short campaign and Vitelli’s relative lack of name recognition compared with Benoit. She called the race a tossup.
Vitelli, a women’s business advocate who has worked behind the scenes on policy in Augusta, has little political experience outside of chairing the Sagadahoc County Democratic Committee and holding municipal office.
Savage said he found it interesting that Democrats are calling the district a tossup, noting that Democrats have held the seat since 2008 and that no Republican state legislators currently represent any part of the district.
The race has been pitched as a bellwether for 2014, when Republican Gov. Paul LePage will likely defend his office against two well-heeled challengers, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, who almost beat LePage in 2010.
But Reinholt called any impact on 2014 questionable and said it “depends on what the results are tomorrow.”
“Our volunteers are worried about this race and want to send someone like Eloise who will fight for the middle class,” she said.
Republicans and their allies had spent nearly $51,000 as of Friday to help Benoit’s campaign. More than $46,000 of it came from the state party.
Democrats, who had a 559-person edge over Republicans in the district in November, have taken out more absentee ballots than Republicans in the race.
So far, the race looks tight. As of Friday afternoon, Chief Deputy Secretary of State Barbara Redmond said 757 Democrats, 705 Republicans, 36 Greens and 318 unenrolled voters had requested absentee ballots.
Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 621-5632 or at: