The recent victory of Republican Rep. Abden Simmons in the special election to succeed the indicted former Rep. Clinton Collamore has been touted by Maine Republicans as a big victory for the party. That’s certainly true, and the new leadership – including Maine Republican Chair Joel Stetkis and House Republican Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham – have every reason to be proud of their accomplishment.

The win snaps a losing streak by Maine Republicans in competitive special elections dating to 2015, back when then-Gov. Paul LePage was just beginning his second term as governor and Rick Bennett was still party chair. They have every reason to be pleased by the result – yet at the same time, their enthusiasm ought to be tempered as they look forward.

For one, while the Republican National Committee and Maine Republican Party alike correctly labeled the seat a battleground district, it probably never should have been. The largest town in the district, Waldoboro, has been winnable for Democrats, but lately has trended more towards Republicans in statewide races. That means that, if anything, it should have been less competitive in local legislative races, not more, remaining a reliably Republican seat.

Democrats, though, have been able to win both the House seat and the Senate district, unexpectedly ousting incumbent Republican Sen. Dana Dow in 2020, then the Senate Republican leader. That loss, as well as the House district, was thoroughly avoidable, and both seats should have been kept in Republican hands. Instead, Democrats were able to add to their majority, thanks to lackluster Republican performances in Lincoln County.

Moreover, the circumstances regarding each special election are always different, and this one was especially odd. It’s rare to see sitting state legislators get indicted in Maine, and it’s even more uncommon for that to happen to a first-term legislator in a district leaning against his party. (Collamore has been sentenced to 72 hours in jail and 100 hours of community service on 11 counts of unsworn falsification and one count of violating the Maine Clean Election Act.) Indeed, it’s hard to think of any other similar situations arising in the past few decades.

While Republicans justifiably touted their victory, almost every single imaginable factor was in their favor. They had a seat they should have won become vacant because of a scandal in the other party, they had a former legislator running for his old seat and because it wouldn’t affect the overall balance of power, it wasn’t vital for Democrats to defend it.


Now, that’s not to say Democrats completely abandoned the district – far from it. They nominated just about the only person who could have won, Wendy Pieh, herself a longtime former legislator from the area. Gov. Mills and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross set aside their differences and campaigned for Pieh, and the party was willing to spend money on the race. So, even though it wasn’t completely necessary, Democrats did try to defend the seat – and it was close. Pieh lost to Simmons only by a 4-point margin and, given the circumstances, that’s not such a bad result. Should she decide to run again next year, the district would likely be heavily contested by both parties; if not, Republicans will likely retain the seat.

While the victory was certainly a good sign for Maine Republicans, a loss under these circumstances would have been apocalyptically awful.It would have signaled to activists, donors and the national party alike that the new leadership hadn’t really made any changes and didn’t have any idea what they were doing. It would have forced a tough re-examination of their tactics and strategy just as they were preparing for a much bigger test, the 2024 elections. To be sure, a win is a win. But here it was vital for Maine Republicans to prove their basic competence. It was not necessarily a demonstration of brilliance.

In order to demonstrate brilliance, Maine Republicans will need to replicate this strategy in districts across the state under much more challenging circumstances: a presidential election year.

If they can do that, then they’ll have a chance at reclaiming a majority in the Maine House. There are enough seats that Democrats won by a smaller margin than District 45 to do that, but it won’t be that simple. They’ll have to find fresh targets, defend their own incumbents and continue to demonstrate a newfound competence. If they can do all that, they have a chance to bring new political balance to Maine. If not, we’ll be facing more years of Democratic dominance.

None of it will be easy, but thanks to the successful flip of House District 45, there’s at least a glimmer of hope for Maine Republicans heading into 2024.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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