Democrats gained control of the Maine Legislature on Tuesday, growing their majority in the House of Representatives and recapturing a decisive majority in the Senate.

Top Democrats said they would use their control of both chambers to take action on several key issues, including funding Medicaid expansion, keeping $160 million in school funding in place and addressing the opioid crisis, as well as workforce development, student debt relief and promotion of renewable energy.

Democrats will hold at least 21 seats in the 35-seat Senate and appeared poised to take at least 81 seats in the 151-seat House, with some results still pending in a handful of races, and others were still too close to call.

The Democrats’ victories mark the first time in eight years that one party has gained control of the entire Legislature and the governorship, aided by the historic win of Janet Mills, who defeated Republican businessman Shawn Moody to become the first woman to be elected governor of Maine.

Republicans appeared to have won at least 56 seats in the House, while six other seats were captured by independent candidates and another eight seats were undecided because the results had either not yet been reported or were too close to call. House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, who won re-election to her House District 48 seat with nearly 80 percent of the vote, said Democrats believed they would hold 89 seats once the final tallies are in.

Democrats last controlled the governorship and both chambers of the Legislature in 2008, during the administration of Gov. John Baldacci. Republicans turned the tables in 2010, only to lose their majorities in the House and Senate in 2012. Republicans gained a majority in the Senate two years later and held onto it by one seat in 2016.

The Democratic sweep should end an era of highly charged partisan discord that was dominated by outgoing Republican Gov. Paul LePage and his prolific use of the veto. LePage governed largely by mobilizing the House minority Republican caucus to sustain a record number of 642 vetoes – more than all other Maine governors combined going back to 1917 and 80 times as many as his predecessor, Baldacci.

Beyond that, LePage made the Legislature’s work more difficult by often refusing to allow members of his Cabinet or other top administration officials to provide testimony to legislative committees.

LePage vetoed bills five times that would have expanded the state’s Medicaid system to an additional 70,000 low-income Mainers. He has stalled implementation of expansion – which voters approved at the ballot box in November 2017 – by vetoing funding and taking legal action.

Democrats and Mills, the state’s attorney general, campaigned largely on access to affordable health care, and Mills has vowed to enact the Medicaid expansion during her first days in office.

“I think Mainers sent a pretty clear message in that they want a change in how our state is run,” Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, the Senate’s current assistant minority leader, said Wednesday. Libby said Democrats would use their newfound power to focus on pocketbook issues, including property taxes, the cost of prescription drugs and student debt relief.

“These are things we can accomplish with the support and collaboration of our Republican colleagues,” Libby said. He said the era of a state government that is in constant partisan gridlock or dysfunction because of a combative and often hostile governor was about to come to a close.

Libby noted that often the only way the Legislature was able to extract information from LePage’s administration was to use the Government Oversight Committee’s subpoena powers to compel witnesses to appear before them.

“I think that’s a really poor way for the Legislature to function,” Libby said. “I expect that is going to change in a big way with the new administration.”

Libby said Democrats already were beginning to start conversations about how they would make good on their promises. At the top of the list was funding Medicaid expansion and keeping in place a more than $160 million state boost to public school funding. That money is included in the state’s current two-year budget but is not committed for the future.

“I think we are excited, but we also feel there is a major responsibility to deliver on the promises we made,” Libby said.

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, the current Senate minority leader and a likely candidate for Senate president, echoed Libby’s sentiments in a news release early Wednesday.

“At the end of the day, Maine people don’t care which party you identify with, they just want someone who is honest, believes in our state and vows to do what they say they’ll do,” Jackson said. “And you can be damn sure that is what we intend to do in the Maine state Senate.”

Gideon said her new caucus, which includes 49 women and 40 men, was very much aligned with Mills and the incoming governor’s agenda.

She said priorities would include expanding Medicaid, taking additional action to stem the state’s ongoing opioid overdose crisis – which Gideon called a “public health emergency” – expanding the state’s renewable energy policies, and addressing workforce development and student debt, among other key issues.

Gideon, who has served in the Legislature only during LePage’s tenure as governor, said she was finding it “really hard to even imagine” what it will be like under a governor who wants to work collaboratively with lawmakers.

“Under (a Mills) administration we will see this dysfunction go away and a true rebuilding of the executive branch and their ability to function in concert with the Legislature,” Gideon said. “I think we can just barely even understand the doors that will open up for everyone.”

LePage issued a prepared statement congratulating all the winners of Tuesday’s elections.

“Mainers have entrusted you with the future of our state and to represent all of the people,” he said. “Please hold that trust sacred. In addition, I specifically wish Governor-Elect Janet Mills well in her new role.”

Nina McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the Maine Republican Party, said party officials were not immediately prepared to issue a statement on the election results.

“We are all still working hard and are not available for a comment or a statement yet,” McLaughlin wrote in an email.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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