There’s been a fair amount of chatter from local political pundits about how the outcome of the U.S. Senate race will measure the health of the Maine Democratic Party.

Recent stories in the Wall Street Journal and The Hill have reported that party officials are worried about a poor showing by party nominee Cynthia Dill in the general election.

The state senator from Cape Elizabeth hasn’t taken the traditional path to the nomination, which is to say, she hasn’t been elected to legislative leadership, and her decision to run for the U.S. Senate wasn’t encouraged by party establishment.

Republicans, whom Dill last year likened to the “Orcs from Lord of the Rings” in a Twitter missive, have been quick to label her as an extremist. Some in the GOP are already floating the narrative that the civil rights attorney represents a party out of touch with Mainers.

Some Democrats dispute efforts to paint Dill as representing the left wing of the party. As progressive activist Mike Tipping tweeted last week, some are “confusing loud with liberal,” a reference to Dill’s reputation as a bomb-thrower at the State House.

Others note that Dill is the nominee because Democrats’ top candidates decided not to take on popular Angus King, fearing a tight three-way race would hand the Senate seat to the GOP.

Concerns about repeating the 2010 gubernatorial race raise the question: Is the Democratic Party losing its appeal to independents?

Mark Brewer, an associate political science professor at the University of Maine, believes it’s a valid question, but he rejects the notion that the Senate race or the 2010 governor’s race are metrics to answer it.

Brewer said the battle for the Legislature will better indicate whether Democrats can claim resurgence from the Republican wave elected in 2010. He said that outcome hinges on Democrats taking at least one chamber of the Legislature.

Local conventional wisdom says that Democrats have a strong chance of winning back the Maine House. Few predicted the GOP would take the House in 2010, and the current belief among Democrats is that the party will benefit from a market correction in 2012.

Republicans, however, aren’t convinced, especially if the Democrats’ game plan is to run against Gov. Paul LePage.

During a recent editorial board meeting with The Portland Press Herald, state Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said he had never seen a legislative election won or lost on the popularity of the chief executive, or even a controversial policy initiative. Rosen said legislative races are decided by the ability of the candidate to connect with voters.

Some Democrats also are privately conceding that internal polls show LePage isn’t as unpopular as some Democrats would like to believe. Apparently the pollings shows that a fair number of independents may not dig LePage’s delivery, but they don’t seem to mind his willingness to shake things up.

If such surveys are accurate, then Democratic fortunes rest with the recruitment of strong legislative candidates who can define themselves on issues, not just opposition to LePage.

Candidate recruitment was made a bit harder this year with the changes to the Maine Clean Election
Act, the law that allows candidates to earn public funding by gathering small donations. The law had been popular with both parties because it attracted candidates who may have had a distaste for the fundraising associated with traditional campaigns.

Running as a Clean Election candidate this year may be a bit more risky due to the threat of outside opposition spending. Incumbents have a built-in advantage.

In other words, Democrats’ ability to achieving the market correction may be harder than it looks.

Nonetheless, the party’s ability, or inability, to do so may tell us a lot more about the state of the Maine Democratic Party than Dill’s Senate bid.

CLEAN ELECTION PROSECUTIONS

Last week, a York County Superior Court judge sentenced Republican lawmaker David Burns of Alfred to six months in jail on three counts of theft and three counts of forgery.

The charges stem from Burns’ diverting more than $2,500 from the taxpayer-funded Maine Clean Election Act.

Burns’ sentence matched the longest jail time for violations of the law. In 2008, an Androscoggin County Superior Court judge sentenced former Lewiston state Rep. William Walcott to six months in jail for using Clean Election funds on personal items.

Burns and Walcott bring to 10 the number of people who have been prosecuted for defrauding the state under the Clean Election law.

n In 2006, Debra Reagan of York County was sentenced to 30 days in jail and ordered to repay $3,390 in stolen Clean Election funds.

n In 2007, Peter Throumoulos of Saco served 60 days for forging names to qualify for public funding totaling about $18,000.

n In 2009, Bruce Ladd of York County served two months in jail for forging Clean Election forms.

n In 2010, four signature gatherers for Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Richardson were prosecuted for falsifying small-donor forms. The charges were later dismissed.

n Michael Hein, who lost his primary race against fellow Republican Andrew Worcester, recently pleaded not guilty to charges that he falsified documents to obtain a minimum of $1,400 in public financing. The charge is punishable by as much as 364 days in jail or a $2,000 fine.

There have been other abuses of the Clean Election law, but many have not risen to the criminal prosecution level and have resulted in fines assessed by the Ethics Commission.

RAYE TOUTS VETERANS BILLS

The state Senate majority office sent an interesting news release this weekend involving Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, and his appearance at the state convention of the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary in Bangor on Saturday.

Raye told the gathering he believed the 125th Legislature will go down as one of the “most productive and consequential legislatures of our lifetimes.” He later listed a host of bills that were passed to benefit or honor veterans.

The release may illustrate the importance of veterans as a voting bloc.

Raye is running against U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, in the 2nd District. Michaud has traditionally been successful in appealing to veterans, appearing at events similar to the one Raye did. He also devotes an entire section of his congressional website to veterans legislation that he has sponsored or backed since he’s been in office.

Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

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This story has been changed to note that charges were dropped by the signature gatherers for Richardson’s gubernatorial campaign.