Many more Republicans than Democrats voted Tuesday in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District primaries, and Republican leaders are calling that evidence of high energy that bodes well for the party’s candidates in November.
Coupled with the surprising defeat of Republican U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor in Virginia, the turnout has political observers noting that the tea party influence remains strong in some races and locations.
Democrats say they’re not worried because they’re confident that the party’s supporters will flock to the Maine polls in November’s general election to try to prevent Republican Gov. Paul LePage from winning another four years.
As of Wednesday evening, with 97 percent of precincts in the 2nd District reporting, Republicans had turned out 6,992 more enrolled voters than Democrats. Figures from the Secretary of State’s Office show 165,309 enrolled Democrats in the district and 126,131 enrolled Republicans.
Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett said the turnout of Republicans was no fluke.
“There’s a lot of unrest. There’s a lot of unhappiness about the direction of our state under Democratic leadership in the Legislature and the president’s leadership in Washington,” Bennett said. “Republicans truly believe that our way of life and our freedoms are imperiled. That translates into a high level of political interest and activity.”
Bennett’s narrative fits neatly into a national and historical context that leaves Democrats, at least at the congressional level, with a daunting task heading into November. That argument is bolstered by Tuesday’s primaries in Maine and Virginia, where tea party-aligned candidates beat opponents from the so-called establishment.
In Virginia, House majority leader Cantor, the former tea party darling and assumed successor to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, suffered a stunning defeat to conservative David Brat. On Wednesday he said he would step down from that role.
In Maine, Republican voters nominated Bruce Poliquin, an ally of LePage who has billed himself as a change agent unwilling to compromise core Republican principles. Poliquin beat Kevin Raye, a former president of the state Senate who ran a campaign centered on his willingness to broker deals with the other party.
MEANING OF TURNOUT DEBATED
The tea party victories alone have reignited predictions of a Republican wave election like the one in 2010. In Maine, the Republicans’ turnout advantage in the 2nd Congressional District primary shows, according to Bennett, an anemic Democratic Party and a lack of enthusiasm for its candidates.
Geoffrey Skelley, an associate editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said it’s dangerous to read too much into primary results.
Maine’s Republican primary was considered more competitive, he said, “which may have played a role in it having higher turnout, whereas Emily Cain was expected to win the Democratic primary fairly handily,” which she did.
“It’s conceivable that a very close gubernatorial election in Maine could boost turnout slightly,” Skelley said, “but based on recent voting data, Maine already has very high midterm election turnout, at least as a part of its voter-eligible population.”
Turnout in Maine for midterm elections was above 50 percent in 2002, 2006 and 2010. Skelley compared that with California, which had turnouts of 40 percent and 36 percent in 2006 and 2002, respectively.
James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Farmington, said Wednesday that he doesn’t blame Republicans for touting the high turnout. However, he said, other factors could have influenced Republican voters’ participation.
Melcher said the party that doesn’t hold the White House is typically more motivated in midterm elections. And the Poliquin-Raye primary was often acrimonious, marked by negative campaigning and attacks, two elements that some studies show can drive up turnout.
Melcher also said Cantor’s unseating and Poliquin’s victory show that predictions of the tea party’s demise are premature.
“Raye was very much running as a (U.S. Sen.) Susan Collins-type Republican,” he said. “Meanwhile, the Republican electorate in a lot of places in the country has that same kind of mood they had four years ago, of wanting more confrontation, not wanting the establishment running things. That’s very much alive. The tea party movement is very spotty. It’s really intense in some places and not as much so in others. But Poliquin’s win certainly fits into that changed narrative about the tea party.”
GOVERNOR’S RACE A BIG FACTOR
Melcher isn’t convinced that Tuesday’s primary signaled a lack of enthusiasm among Democrats in the race for governor. In fact, he said, the gubernatorial battle could help Democrats overcome the turnout doldrums that are typical in years without a presidential election.
“Especially in House races, the midterm tends to bring a lot lower turnout for the president’s party,” he said. “That said, I think there’s an awful lot of Democrats that are awfully motivated to vote less on the congressional race than on the gubernatorial race. … I think you’re going to have very high turnout, and that will benefit Democrats in the congressional races. There’s more passion about the gubernatorial race than the congressional race.”
Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, agreed. He said he wasn’t surprised by Tuesday’s turnout in the 2nd Congressional District, and the Maine Republican Party is “scraping the bottom of the barrel” for good news because it has to help elect “fundamentally flawed candidates in Paul LePage and Bruce Poliquin.”
“The takeaway argument is that (Tuesday’s turnout) is utterly meaningless,” Grant said. “The people of Maine are going to be incredibly motivated this fall to send Paul LePage home. We’re finding that time and time again, no matter what type of research we do.”
Grant cautioned against reading much into the performance of Democrat Troy Jackson against Cain, the nominee. Jackson won the majority of endorsements from organized labor, a key constituency that helps turn out voters for Democrats.
Unofficial results show Cain defeating Jackson, 71 percent to 29 percent, with 97 percent of precincts reporting. Grant said that means less about the performance of organized labor than it does about the two campaigns. He noted that Cain took the early fundraising lead and got on television. Jackson never made it on the air.
“The folks in the labor movement are so enthusiastic about Mike Michaud (in the race for governor) that I believe that they’ll turn out and participate in great numbers this fall,” Grant said. “A great turnout operation is worth maybe five (percentage) points and that’s why we do it; it makes a difference in a close race. But what the candidates do and what they are able to do makes a bigger difference.”
Democrats are banking on their turnout operation for November. In February, USW Works, a super PAC for the United Steelworkers union, gave $300,000 to the Maine Democratic Party, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. The donation is likely to help bankroll a canvassing effort for November.
Grant said the door-to-door program has been running for months. He said the party has already made 125,000 phone calls and knocked on more than 25,000 doors.
“We’ve had a fully operational grass-roots campaign for several months now,” he said. “Now we’ll fold the primary operation into the next phase. We just keep our foot on the gas.”