AUGUSTA — Republican candidate Ande Smith formally requested a ballot recount Friday in hopes of erasing opponent Mark Holbrook’s razor-thin lead following Tuesday’s primary election in Maine’s 1st District.

An unofficial tally by the Secretary of State’s office puts Smith just 55 votes behind Holbrook out of 20,651 ballots cast in the Republican primary – a difference of 0.2 percent. Smith on Friday asked Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to begin the recount process in an election to decide who will challenge four-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree in November.

“There are certainly opportunities for error when you have that close of a margin,” Smith said during a brief news conference outside the State House. “We believe we need to be sure because the issue is that significant to the state of Maine of who is going to face Chellie Pingree.”

Smith, of North Yarmouth, is an attorney and cybersecurity consultant who serves on the Maine State Board of Education. He has served more than 30 years in the Navy and Navy Reserves, holding the rank of captain.

Holbrook, of Brunswick, is a counselor and former police officer who also has worked as a lobsterman, a commercial diver and an instructor. Holbrook described himself as “the only conservative choice” in the campaign – an attempted swipe at Smith’s Republican credentials – and beat his opponent in many coastal and rural areas despite being significantly outspent.

The apparent victor of the primary election said Friday that his campaign is already “retooling for November” rather than wait for the recount outcome.

Holbrook said he has “a great deal of respect for the Secretary of State’s office and their procedures.” And conversations he’s had with Dunlap’s office and former secretaries of state have left him feeling optimistic.

“While the numbers may go up or down, the outcome won’t change because the errors are random: some will favor me and some will favor him,” Holbrook said. “I had hoped he would have the same information and would recognize the futility of this and not go through with it.”

Smith said he was bringing in legal counsel to help his campaign decide how to proceed. While Smith could request recounts in all 118 towns that voted in the 1st District primary, he also has the option of asking for a more limited, exploratory scope or targeting specific areas. He said he was not aware of any major voting irregularities.

“We’re mindful of the logistic difficulties that the state faces trying to capture ballots from 118 or so communities in the 1st District,” Smith said. “So we will be discussing a strategy with counsel and also, of course, with the opposing side.”

Roughly 90 percent of the ballots cast in the race were tabulated by machine, which Dunlap said usually means higher accuracy than hand-counting. Dunlap said elections separated by a handful of votes can be flipped, but the odds of changing the outcome decreases with the size of the gap.

“Fifty-five votes is a significant hurdle. Something would have had to have gone badly wrong on election night,” Dunlap said. “Our local elected officials are very good and they rarely make errors. The point of a recount is to give peace of mind to the candidates that everything was done well and everything was done properly.”

NOT UNPRECEDENTED

The Secretary of State’s Office often receives 10 or more recount requests per election, typically in legislative races. Congressional recounts are more unusual, although not unprecedented in Maine or elsewhere.

In 2002, Republican Kevin Raye beat primary opponent Timothy Woodcock by 319 votes – out of 38,000 cast – in a race for Maine’s 2nd District following a recount. And in 1974, Republican David Emery narrowly beat Democratic Rep. Peter Kyros in a general election race that also went to a recount.

In Indiana, election officials are conducting a recount of a Democratic congressional primary in which the gap is just 68 votes out of 58,000 cast by voters.

Maine recount rules require that Maine State Police collect all ballots and deliver them to “a secure storage area under the control of the State Police.” Each campaign would then have one counter assigned to recount the ballots along with a third person from the Secretary of State’s Office, all done in a public setting.

Dunlap said it would take time for state police to collect the ballots from all 118 towns. Likewise, unsealing, counting and resealing each batch of ballots from every town will take time.

“If they want to go through all 118 towns, that is obviously their right,” Dunlap said. “But if they want to get a feel for what the landscape looks like – doing, say, 20 towns and see if things change – they have that option.”

Whoever wins the Republican nomination will then face a difficult challenge in the general election against Pingree, given her name recognition and fundraising ability as an incumbent.

While both Republican candidates say they are conservative, Holbrook’s stances on immigration, abortion, gun rights and global warming are from the far-right side of the political spectrum. That will resonate with some voters but is unlikely to play well in many of the district’s larger, left-leaning communities in southern Maine.

“Pingree would be a strong favorite in any case, although it seems the dislike of her among Republicans is much stronger than it was for (Rep.) Tom Allen,” said Jim Melcher, a longtime political observer who teaches political science at the University of Maine at Farmington. Melcher pointed out that previous candidates, such as Charlie Summers, had higher name recognition than either Smith or Holbrook but still lost.

“There hasn’t been a Republican in that seat in two decades, and it’s a presidential election year, where (Democrats) in Maine do better than in the off-years,” Melcher wrote in an email.

PARTY PRAISES CANDIDATES

The race has also failed to attract the attention of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans in Washington, D.C. The committee has sent email blasts propping up Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin – and bashing Democratic opponent Emily Cain – in what is expected to be a closely watched race for Maine’s 2nd District.

Immediately after Smith’s recount announcement Friday, the Maine Republican Party praised both Holbrook and Smith as “extraordinary, talented public servants (who) have bright futures in Maine public life.”

“With the Secretary of State declaring Mark Holbrook the apparent winner, I offer him our congratulations and best wishes,” party chairman Rick Bennett said in a statement. “It was a hard-fought race, which reminded us again that every vote counts. Ande Smith is right to assure voters of the accuracy of the reported outcome with his requested recount.”

Smith, for his part, was energetic and upbeat after filing his recount request Friday.

“I had said in the past, we’d never had a bad day in the campaign. I think yesterday probably would have counted as our first,” Smith said. “But we remain optimistic that the recount will show a different result.”

 


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