We have seen a recent rash of defections from the Maine Democratic Party in the Legislature of late, where Democrats abandoned the party to become unenrolled. In the past, one might see a maximum of two or three of these a session, and they’d usually come from both parties – one or two from each. Usually, they’d be easily explainable: A moderate (often a personally quirky one) would end up fed up with his party leadership and jump ship. Most of the time, these switches wouldn’t have any impact on the party makeup of the Legislature – or, if they did, the person would end up backtracking somehow (or losing re-election).

The recent raft of defections from the Democrats are something quite different, however. They began the session with a slim majority of 77 seats, to the Republicans’ 72 – barely enough to retain control of the chamber. Since then, three members of their party have switched to unenrolled, while only one Republican has, dropping them from a majority to a plurality. We’ve gone from two independent representatives to five, plus one newfound Green Independent – all without any elections interceding.

Now, as with previous party changes in recent years, this hasn’t affected the balance of power. All of those changing party have become independents (or Green), and the Democrats have retained a plurality, if not an outright majority. Indeed, if you didn’t happen to have one of these legislators as your representative, you might never have heard of their party switch. None of them have redrawn the partisan makeup of the Legislature, nor have they changed the outcome of the major policy battles in Augusta. That’s not to say they’re insignificant, however. Indeed, that might very well make them all the more interesting.

When a single legislator switches parties, that’s a fairly easy process to understand. Usually the legislator is fairly moderate, and ends up feeling alienated from his or her initial party for a particular reason – sometimes political, sometimes personal. If it dramatically affects the balance of power, that’s all the easier to comprehend: The legislator switching parties is likely to gain a plum committee assignment out of the deal, or some other sort of other major favor from the new majority party.

The party changes that have occurred this session, though, haven’t landed any kind of major benefits to the legislators. On one level, that’s more admirable: It says that the legislators switching parties aren’t just doing so for personal gain, but because they have a real disagreement. However, it also makes their decision more nebulous and difficult to understand – especially for their constituents.

Several of the legislators unenrolling this session have cited the influence of lobbyists and general partisanship in Augusta as part of their motivation, but haven’t raised specific issues where they’ve differed from their party, nor have they specifically criticized leadership. The latest defection, however, is slightly different from the first two, as Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford isn’t serving in his fourth term, so he is eligible to run for re-election. His decision to unenroll from the party also seemed more organized, as it was publicized by the Maine Independents group that seeks to elect more independents to the Legislature.

That will leave Democrats with an important question next year as they begin to recruit candidates: Do they attempt to reclaim Grohman’s seat, or trust that he will continue to largely side with them? It’s only one district, but it should be a reliably Democratic one. As a solo independent legislator, Grohman isn’t much concern for them, but if the Maine Independents political action committee is successful next year and sends him some reinforcements, then suddenly his vote matters a great deal.

The other question for Democrats to consider is how actively the Maine Independents PAC is trying to recruit other legislators to jump ship. Was Grohman’s decision a one-time occurrence, or some sort of warning shot? If there are other Democrats in Augusta who feel as he does, then leadership may have a revolt on their hands.

Even if it doesn’t have an impact in the upcoming, shorter second session, it might make a big difference in the midterm elections. Of course, if either party wins a huge majority next year, or if the independent legislators are mostly reliably liberal, they won’t end up mattering all that much in the end. Their influence will really be felt only if the Legislature remains closely divided and their votes on major issues are truly up for grabs.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

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Twitter: @jimfossel