AUGUSTA — An Arrowsic Democrat 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.

Eloise Vitelli, 64, won nearly 50 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s special election in Senate District 19, according to reports from municipal clerks.

“Everybody’s pleased, myself included,” Vitelli said late Tuesday. “It was a great team effort.”

Vitelli won 4,621 of 9,317 votes district-wide, taking Topsham and Bath, the district’s two largest communities.

Republican Paula Benoit of Phippsburg got nearly 47 percent, losing by 282 votes, with Green Independent Daniel Stromgren of Topsham taking less than 4 percent of votes.

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 compared 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.”

Vitelli 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 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, Rick Bennett, the Maine GOP chair, called the Democrats’ ads “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 Lizzy 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 of frustration with the policies supported by Republicans and Gov. LePage.”

“Democrats were trying to make it a referendum on the governor,” said Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington. “Republicans seemed to be annoyed by that and Democrats didn’t talk about issues as much as they should have.”

To counter that, 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.

The race was also pitched by many politicos and media personalities as a possible predictor of the result of the 2014 gubernatorial race, where LePage will likely defend his office against U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat, and independent Eliot Cutler.

Bennett downplayed any parallel with the upcoming governor’s race, noting that Goodall held the seat in 2012 with nearly 64 percent of votes.

“For us, this was an effort to pick up something we didn’t have,” he said. “We came darn close against huge odds.”

However, Goodall faced Jeffrey Pierce of Dresden, a candidate with no political experience outside of local government, in 2012, not a seasoned campaigner like Benoit.

“Winning campaigns are based on momentum and motivation, and this is something Democrats can build on and Republicans have to recover from,” said Dan Demeritt, a former spokesman for LePage and a weekly columnist for the Portland Press Herald.

But Melcher said the biggest impact of the election is maintenance of Democrats’ legislative power, combined with fundraising momentum going into the 2014 cycle.

“I don’t know that it necessarily predicts anything,” he said. “It’s very good for Democratic morale; probably not so good for Republican morale.”

Kennebec Journal Managing Editor Scott Monroe contributed to this report.

Michael Shepherd — 621-5632
mshepherd@mainetoday.com