AUGUSTA — An Arrowsic Democrat appears to have won the open Senate seat in Sagadahoc County and Dresden on Tuesday after a brief, expensive race in which Democrats painted her opponent as a hard-line supporter of Gov. Paul LePage.
Lizzy Reinholt, spokeswoman for the Maine Democratic Party, said Eloise Vitelli, 64, won Tuesday’s special election in Senate District 19, comprised of Sagadahoc County and Dresden.
“Everybody’s pleased, myself included,” Vitelli said late Tuesday. “It was a great team effort.”
Late Tuesday, Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett conceded the race, saying party returns had Vitelli beating Republican Paula Benoit, a former legislator from Phippsburg.
With only Phippsburg and Dresden not having reported results to the Kennebec Journal as of 11:40 p.m., Vitelli had 50 percent of votes to Benoit’s 46 percent. Green Independent Daniel Stromgren of Topsham got 4 percent of votes.
Vitelli narrowly defeated Benoit in Bath and Topsham, the two largest communities in Senate District 19. Party figures had Vitelli winning Dresden and Benoit winning Phippsburg. The election preserves Democrats’ majority in the 35-member Maine Senate, at 19.
Stakes were high in the race, with Democratic and Republican interests pumping in more than $150,000 in outside money.
Democrats wanted desperately to retain the seat. After he was elected to three terms in the Maine Senate, Richmond’s Seth Goodall resigned in July to head the Northeast offices of the federal Small Business Administration.
With his exit, Democrats lost a leader who had amassed clout in Augusta as a dealmaker. In the last legislative session, Goodall served as Senate majority leader.
Shortly after Goodall announced his imminent departure, House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, declined to run for Goodall’s seat, leaving the party to look further down its bench.
In Vitelli, Democrats found a candidate with policy experience but little public profile next to Benoit, who won election to the seat in 2006 but lost to Goodall by 162 votes in 2008, a year dominated by Democrats with the election of President Barack Obama.
For more than 30 years, Vitelli has worked as director of program and policy development for Women, Work and Community, a statewide group largely focused on improving the standing of women in business. In that time, she worked behind the scenes to craft policy in Augusta.
In a statement after Democrats announced her victory, Vitelli said she “will be committed to helping workers and businesses by creating a level playing field for all Maine people to have good jobs and succeed.”
She said she will join the full Legislature on Thursday, when it is expected to approve a $150 million bond package, $100 million of which is to be spent on transportation improvements statewide.
Republicans and Democrats used much of the money spent in the campaign to wrangle in advertisements. The main battle was over what kind of a Republican Benoit is.
Adam Lee, chairman of Lee Auto Malls and a Democratic Party loyalist, recorded a radio advertisement for state Democrats linking Benoit to LePage, seen by many as one of the more prominent members of the Maine Republican Party’s most conservative wing.
In an editorial board meeting at the Portland Press Herald’s office early Tuesday, Bennett, the Maine GOP chair, called ads such as the ones run by Democrats “horribly unfortunate.”
“If they want to spend more than $100,000 to defend every seat, I guess we’re having an impact,” Bennett said late Tuesday.
But Reinholt, the Maine Democratic Party spokeswoman, said the party had to spend to boost Vitelli’s public profile, as she was less-known throughout the district than Benoit, a former legislator.
Reinholt said “at the end of the day, the voters make the decision.”
She said the result was “borne out out of frustration with the policies supported by Republicans and Gov. LePage.”
But Republicans touted radio ads in support of Benoit from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, seen nationally as two of the most moderate members of the party.
“I’ve known her for a long time,” said Les Fossel, a former state legislator who greeted voters in Dresden at Benoit’s request. “She’s a moderate Republican.”
However, at the polls in Richmond, Cynthia Dowd, who said she’s independent-minded, said she voted for Vitelli both because Goodall endorsed her and because Dowd didn’t believe Benoit was moderate.
“I did my research and it didn’t match up with what (Republicans) were telling me,” Dowd said.
Kennebec Journal Managing Editor Scott Monroe contributed to this report.
Michael Shepherd — 370-7652