Politics

August 26, 2012

Urgency injected in legislative campaigns

The stakes are high as Democrats see their chance to retake control of the Maine Legislature.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Republican state Sen. Nichi Farnham has been running -- literally -- throughout Bangor and Hermon to convince voters in District 32 that she deserves a second term. Geoff Gratwick, her Democratic challenger, has been campaigning on his bicycle.

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Farnham describes the race as a "healthy competition" between two candidates with different views. Democratic and Republican operatives, however, have ascribed some urgency to the race, along with dozens of others that could affect the balance of power at the State House.

At stake is a Republican agenda that has been laden with change and, at times, controversy.

The largest tax cut in state history was enacted, although not entirely paid for. A contentious overhaul of the state's health insurance laws was passed, along with a charter school bill and initiatives to ease regulation.

Now, Democrats see a chance in November to take back the Legislature, where Republicans hold a 77-70 edge in the House (two members unenrolled, two seats vacant) and 19-15 advantage in the Senate (one unenrolled).

This month, Farnham and four other Republican state senators were targeted in a television ad by the Maine Democratic Party. The ad was absent the collegiality Farnham used to describe her race. It dubbed them "rubber-stampers" of Gov. Paul LePage's "extreme agenda."

The decision to run the ad came after operatives crunched the numbers, evaluating party registration advantages, election results and other factors before identifying Farnham's seat as winnable.

Strategists in both parties have made similar calculations for other swing districts and battleground races. Video, radio and mail ads are queued. Outside interests with a stake in who controls the Legislature may be watching, too.  

It's standard procedure every two years as parties vie for control of the State House.

This legislative election, however, is different.

Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant has described the battle for the Legislature as "one of the most important elections in the history" of the party.

"That's not hyperbole," Grant said.

Democrats aren't monopolizing the urgency. Republicans, who wrested full control of the Legislature for the first time in over three decades in 2010, say they've just started reforming state government. They argue that the initiatives were part of the voter mandate that swept the party into power in 2010. A divided State House in 2013 would blunt their electoral directive, said House Speaker Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland.

"I just don't see Democrats supporting some of the things we want to do," Nutting said. "With this governor in office, it could be two years of not getting anything done. It could be gridlock just like we see in Washington."

For Democrats, stopping the Republican agenda, and specifically LePage, is the priority. They warn that two more years of the governor's unchecked rule will further slash the public safety net and lead to additional privatization of government services, dismantling of organized labor and economic policies that threaten the state's infrastructure and job growth.

"The governor's agenda takes us back on many things that our side has fought for and won over the (last 40 years)," Grant said. "This is a vital election for the Legislature."

SWING DISTRICTS

There are 54 open seats -- contests with no incumbent -- in the House and 13 in the Senate this election. Some of those districts are considered swing districts, meaning both parties think they can win it. Some races with incumbents are also being targeted.

Grant told the Maine Sunday Telegram that the party is eyeing between 30 and 40 races in the House and Senate. Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster was more vague but said he was confident the party could grow its majority.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: State House control

Who do you think will control the State House after the 2012 elections?

Democrats

Republicans

View Results

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