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November 24, 2012

File photo/The Associated Press

How the Republican Party lost the State House

By Colin Woodard
cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A backlash against Gov. Paul LePage in the more populous regions of the state and an overwhelming spending advantage for Democrats in key races were largely responsible for ending Republican control of both State House chambers this month.

A Maine Sunday Telegram analysis of key state Senate and House races shows that Democrats capitalized on regional dissatisfaction with LePage and many of his signature policy initiatives in Bangor and in southern, central and midcoast Maine to unseat 14 incumbent Republicans and capture nearly a dozen open seats that had previously been occupied by Republicans.

They were able to use the polarizing governor as a fundraising tool, raising unprecedented amounts of money and using it to target Republicans in these regions. Ads emphasized Republican candidates' votes in support of contentious policies backed by the governor, including a market-based health insurance overhaul, a tax cut that included cuts for wealthy taxpayers, an attempt to eliminate same-day voter registration, and the advent of charter schools.

"These campaigns weren't just about general ideas or philosophies but about the specific votes these people had taken," says pollster Mike Tipping of the Maine People's Alliance, a liberal group that registered 4,000 voters across the state. "For the first time in a while, these elections were fought on specific issues."

"When you see the amount of money that was brought in and when you see how they used it, that tells me there was tremendous emotion and perhaps even anger toward the administration, and that was the DNA that enabled what we saw unfold on election night," says political commentator and former Republican state Sen. Phil Harriman. "They were able to use that emotion and anger to rally people to write big checks to implement their strategies."

Paralleling the national campaigns, Democratic groups in Maine successfully cast conservative Republican lawmakers as being in league with moneyed or corporate interests, and ideological moderates as having helped carry their water.

"There were Republican incumbents who were rubber stamps for the LePage agenda ... (which) sided with out-of state interests, not the state's interest," says Ericka Dodge, a spokeswoman for the Maine Senate Democrats. "We saw opportunities to find candidates who matched the values of these districts."

In the process they overthrew four incumbent Republican senators, two of whom were in their first terms. Moderates Nichi Farnham of Bangor and Chris Rector of Thomaston were ousted alongside Lois Snowe-Mello and Thomas Martin, conservatives with strong tea party appeal.

"The governor is not very popular in my district," said Rector, one of five senators targeted with ads alleging they were "rubber stamps" of the governor. "I think a lot of the dissatisfaction people have with the governor are matters of style and approach as opposed to policy."

In the House the Democrats took down 10 incumbents, nine of whom were freshmen and eight of whom were rated as having very conservative voting records by both the liberal Maine People's Alliance and Maine People Before Politics, an activist group closely aligned with LePage. Republicans were able to oust only one incumbent Democrat, former House Speaker John Martin of Eagle Lake in far northern Maine.

Democrats also took 11 open Republican seats, while independent candidates captured two more. Nearly all of these were in districts in central or coastal Maine or Bangor. Republicans took just six open Democratic seats.

The Republicans are increasingly becoming the party of the so-called "rim counties" in western, northern and eastern Maine, the Democrats dominant in the other, more populous regions.

"We felt we had the right message, but they were able to outspend us in some races," says Republican Senate leader Michael Thibodeau of Winterport. "For decades Democrats have tried to foster a welfare state, and voters rejected that message in 2010 and I don't think they've changed their mind."

REPUBLICANS OUTSPENT IN KEY RACES

Money does appear to have played a critical role in key races that helped throw control of the State House to the Democrats, dealing a critical blow to LePage's ability to further his policy agenda. Democratic Party and political action committees significantly outspent their Republican rivals in the four Senate and 10 House races where a Republican incumbent was defeated, sometimes by jaw-dropping levels.

In some targeted races, Republican groups fought back strongly but were still outspent.

In Senate District 32 in the Bangor area, first-term Sen. Farnham's supporters were outspent $247,262 to $207,152, and she lost to challenger Geoffrey Gratwick by 12 percentage points. In a Waterville area Senate race, conservative freshman Thomas Martin lost his District 25 seat to Democrat Colleen Lachowicz by 5 points after his supporters were outspent by 27 percent.

In the Bangor area, third-party supporters of conservative freshman Republican Rep. Douglas Damon were outspent $21,589 to $13,367, or almost 40 percent, by those backing his Democratic challenger, John Schneck, who won the race 59 percent to 41 percent. Another conservative freshman, James Parker of Veazie, faced a $22,466 to $17,297 (or 23 percent) deficit against Aaron Frey of Bangor, who won House District 18 with 58 percent of the vote. Incumbent conservative first-term Rep. Susan Morissette lost her Winslow-area seat to Democrat Catherine Nadeau by 52 votes after her third-party supporters were outspent $21,436 to $16,311. In Freedom and Palermo, District 45 Rep. Ryan Harmon's supporters were outspent by a third; he lost the seat to Democrat Brian Jones by just 31 votes.

Those spending margins were likely critical in many races, according to Michael Franz, a Bowdoin College political scientist who studies the effect and efficacy of political advertising. "Where you have freshmen legislators or open seats, that money is going to make a big difference in these down-the-ballot races," Franz says. "Even at the $15,000 or $20,000 level (of campaign spending), there's a lot of learning that can be made by voters in these races."

But the Democratic money advantage was far greater in other contests where incumbent Republicans met defeat. Conservative three-term Poland Sen. Snowe-Mello lost her seat by 7 points to Democrat John J. Cleveland of Auburn after third parties outspent her supporters by more than two-to-one. Two-term Sen. Rector lost his Rockland/Thomaston area seat to Democratic Rep. Ed Mazurek by 6 points with a third-party spending deficit of nearly two-to-one.

There were more lopsided contests in the House. In Augusta's District 58, supporters of another conservative first-termer, Karen Foster, were outspent nearly 2-to-1 by those backing Democrat Lori Fowle, who won by 10 points. In Phippsburg, District 64 incumbent Kimberly Olsen -- also a first-termer -- faced a more than 2-to-1 disadvantage in third-party spending and lost 54 percent to 46 percent to challenger Jeremy Saxton. Conservative freshman Rep. John Picchiotti confronted an over 12-to-1 disadvantage in defending his District 84 seat around Fairfield; he lost by 6 points to Democrat Karen Kusiak.

And those are the relatively fortunate ones. In Gorham, moderate two-term Republican Rep. Jane Knapp had a 16-to-1 third-party spending disadvantage against challenger Andrew McLean and lost 62 percent to 38 percent. Tea party firebrand Beth O'Connor lost the District 156 House race 52 percent to 48 percent to Democrat Joshua Plante; the first-term legislator's supporters were outspent by more than 22-to-1. For moderate freshman Bradley Moulton -- defeated by Paul McGowan by 8 points in the Ogunquit/Wells area -- the ratio was 23-to-1.

FUNDING SOURCES

The Democratic expenditures came from a variety of sources and were channeled through both party and political action committees. The biggest players included the various national Democratic Party organs, which invested about $1 million in Maine's State House races; the National Education Association and its state affiliate, which committed nearly $500,000; S. Donald Sussman of North Haven (about $400,000); and the state employees union (over $200,000). Sussman is the majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and other media outlets in Maine.

The big Republican side expenditures originated with the Virginia-based Republican State Leadership Committee (about $800,000); Southport summer resident Ed Bosarge ($150,000); and Oppenheimer and Co., a New York-based investment firm ($110,000).

Sources aligned with both parties said Democrats likely benefited from the presidential race and the same-sex marriage ballot initiative, both of which are thought to have bolstered liberal turnout.

"In my district, the negatives for Gov. LePage and the positives for Obama were very high, and we were one of three counties that voted last time in support of marriage equality," Rector said. "That doesn't bode well for moderate Republicans like myself."

Obama won every Maine county save Piscataquis, while the marriage initiative passed with 53 percent of the vote, with support generally strongest in the regions where Republican legislative incumbents lost.

Because of this, Thibodeau is upbeat about Republican prospects next time around. "The top of the ticket had races we came up short on," he says. "We think in 2014 it will be a very different outcome."

Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@mainetoday.com





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