If there’s anywhere Maine Republicans have consistently succeeded in recent years, it’s been the state Senate.
While the House of Representatives has had a Republican majority for exactly two of the last 46 years, the Senate’s been a different story. Over the past six election cycles, Republicans have held the majority for three: 2010-2012, and again from 2014-2018.
The politician who engineered the last two majorities as state party chair, Rick Bennett, is running again in District 19, which hasn’t elected a Democrat in a long time.
The Oxford County district, with four rural Cumberland County towns, has been represented by Jim Hamper, an Appropriations Committee stalwart who’s one of a handful of term-limited senators – unlike 2018, when Democrats took advantage of nine open Republican seats to turn an 18-17 GOP majority into a solid 21-14 edge, their largest in two decades.
Bennett was Senate president in 2002, during an unusual but productive session where he shared presiding duties with Democrat Mike Michaud, who then moved to Congress. That unusual “cohabitation,” as the French call it, necessitated by a lone independent, seems a million miles from recent scorch-earth partisanship, but Bennett prefers the old ways.
While not predicting a reversal of fortune this year – he ventured that “if it turns out to be a good year, we could end up in the majority” – he sees legislative races as following different patterns than contests for president and Congress.
Bennett’s Facebook page shows another face of the GOP. He posts about rehabilitating injured loons (his father, Dean, is a legendary conservationist), getting big money out of politics, and honoring the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Ultimate success may depend on President Donald Trump’s fate, but Bennett said there may be surprises elsewhere.
Assistant Democratic Leader Eloise Vitelli, in her third Senate term from Sagadahoc County’s District 23, is confident that Democrats will hold, if not increase their majority. “We have good candidates all over the state,” she said.
Democrats are contesting all 35 seats, while Republicans again opted out of Portland’s two Senate districts, with Sens. Heather Sanborn and Ben Chipman unopposed; in contrast, there are no Republican candidates in 24 House districts and no Democrats in 10.
Vitelli’s own campaigns show recent vicissitudes. She won a 2013 special election but lost in 2014 to Republican Linda Baker with a Green Independent candidate also on the ballot. The 2016 rematch was expected to be close, but Baker was ousted in the primary by a Paul LePage favorite, whom Vitelli easily dispatched.
It’s now a more confident, more united Democratic Party, Vitelli said – while Republicans are just relieved another LePage-backed primary challenger, Rep. Larry Lockman, fell short against three-term Sen. Kim Rosen in District 8. Bennett now sees Rosen as safe.
With so many incumbents, there may be fewer upsets, but both parties are focused on several “swing” or newly competitive districts.
Democrats have their eyes on District 13 in Lincoln County, where Minority Leader Dana Dow prevailed in 2018 by just 300 votes. Dow, a furniture store owner with moderate tendencies, might ordinarily be favored, but a challenger described even by Republicans as “a force” is making a spirited challenge.
Rep. Chloe Maxmin, a first-term legislator from Nobleboro, is among the younger, more progressive Democratic women coming to the fore. Vitelli, whose district overlaps Maxmin’s, is impressed; she said Maxmin “would be a fun addition,” and of Dow, “I’ve known Dana a long, long time, worked with him on the Legislative Council – and he sells good furniture.”
Similar opportunities could exist in Kennebec County, where districts that once elected Democrats have trended Republican. Newcomer Kallie Hess is challenging first-term Republican Sen. Matt Pouliot in Augusta-centered District 15, while Waterville City Councilor Hilary Koch faces three-term Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Winslow, in District 16.
Democrats think they can win the open District 34 seat in York County, where they’ve made gains; Republican Michael Pardue, Kennebunk’s town manager, faces Democrat Joseph Rafferty, Kennebunk High School’s football coach.
The Republican wish list begins in District 2, where veteran Democratic Sen. Mike Carpenter of Houlton has a determined challenger in Rep. Trey Stewart of Presque Isle, the assistant House Republican leader.
Bennett pointed out that Republicans outnumber Democrats by 3,600 votes – one of only 10 GOP-plurality districts – and that Presque Isle is vote-rich.
He also likes GOP chances in District 12, where a three-term incumbent, Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, faces Gordon Page of Owls Head, former executive director of Main Street Rockland.
Overall, though, registrations have trended heavily Democratic since Trump’s election, with a 92,000-voter margin over Republicans, 388,000-296,000. For the first time in years, registered Democrats exceed the unenrolled, at 341,000; Green Independents number 41,500.
And in a polarized political atmosphere, party registrations matter.
Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and former editor of Maine Times.
A closer look: Senate District 29
Although the two candidates for state Senate District 29 graduated from the University of Maine School of Law just 10 years just apart, they come from entirely distinct political generations.
The Republican, former Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, was first elected to office in 1990 when moderates were still dominant in the GOP, and officeholders like Gov. John McKernan and U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe got votes from across the political spectrum. She won seven consecutive four-year terms as DA, rarely breaking a sweat, before stepping down in 2018.
Anne Carney, the Democrat, moved to Maine in 1988 and went into private practice, representing employers and employees in civil rights and unemployment cases. She built a community base and served as president of the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust. By the time she sought office in 2018 and won a House seat, progressives had eclipsed moderates in the Democratic Party and Cumberland County had moved strongly to the left.
The two are competing for the open seat left behind by four-term Sen. Rebecca Millett in District 29, composed of South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, and a slice of Scarborough.
Anderson’s approach, light on ideology, was apparent in her first campaign when she decided that the Democratic heir-apparent, with no criminal law experience, “was using it as a political steppingstone.” She found this “offensive and wrong,” she said, and she put it, “I got on my white horse and charged in.”
Today, the odds are against any GOP nominee, and in District 29 registered Democrats outnumber Republican by more than 2-1. Still, that’s a far cry from Portland’s District 27, where the margin is 6-1 and there’s again no Republican candidate.
If any Republican can win here, it’s probably Anderson. Former GOP Party Chair Rick Bennett said her familiarity with voters and name recognition are decided assets, along with her independent-minded approach. Bennett said she’s “strong, thoughtful, and strong-willed.”
Anderson said her criminal justice reform record is the key to her candidacy. “For years, I saw first-hand how bad policies, that people thought were good, were adversely affecting the lives of ordinary people,” she said. “I’d like to be able to do something about that.”
She has lobbied the Legislature on “hundreds of bills,” she said, and in one instance found herself picking up the pieces when, in a cost-cutting move, lawmakers ended probation supervision for all misdemeanor crimes, affecting 11,000 cases.
The current “deferred disposition” system, run by DAs, is the result. Anderson ensured that Cumberland was the first county to staff the program.
If elected, Anderson said she sees her job as continuing to pose tough questions. Although she’s all for converting to renewable energy, she’s skeptical we’ve created an adequate plan: “What do we do with the solar panels when they’re used up in 20 years? No one seems to know.”
Carney’s legal career includes eight years of pro bono work through Pine Tree Legal, where she saw first-hand the obstacles ordinary Mainers face in the legal system. But she was also attentive to the needs of small businesses.
“Working on both sides helped me see how laws can be changed and improved,” she said.
When she joined the Legislature, she was ready. Her bill to rectify discriminatory standards for pregnant employees, for instance, was approved by the Legislature with strong Republican support.
Late last year, she began hearing concerns from South Portland residents about the eventual decommissioning of the oil storage facilities that still dominate the city’s waterfront. Her emergency legislation, LD 2033, mandating elaborate closure procedures, was enacted on the session’s final day before the pandemic adjournment.
Carney said she enjoys the analytical work that’s sometimes lacking in otherwise laudable bills. Her study of liberation theology, for example, helps her view policy “through the lens of racial justice. I’m eager to keep doing that work.”
Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, who as assistant majority leader is helping run the Democrats’ statewide campaign, has no doubts about Carney. “Anne is a great candidate,” Vitelli said. “She’s decisive, works well with others, and she’s wicked smart.”
— Douglas Rooks
A closer look: Senate District 13
State Rep. Chloe Maxmin has been an activist for 15 years. Now just 26, she earned awards for her climate change work in high school at Lincoln Academy and was featured in a Sundance Channel documentary. At Harvard, before graduating in 2015, she co-founded a fossil fuel divestment effort.
Maxmin grew up on a family farm in Nobleboro, that, like many, wasn’t thriving. “We sold the animals a few years ago,” she said, but she decided to come home, then run for office.
Why? She’d lobbied many elected officials, and said “we kept telling them, ‘stand up for us, listen to us,’ but the issues continue to get worse. It’s not happening with those we’ve elected.”
As a Democrat, she won the District 88 House seat in 2018 representing four rural towns, then went to work on constituent priorities. She was just named the Maine Council on Aging’s Legislator of the Year for her work on rural transportation.
Maxmin hasn’t taken her eye off global warming. “Everything we love and care about is threatened, our economy, our way of life,” she said, and it’s not just the Paris climate accords: “We need solutions at every level of government, federal, state and municipal.”
She’s running in Senate District 13, a Lincoln County district with 22 small towns. It’s now represented by Senate Republican Leader Dana Dow, who did not return several calls seeking an interview.
Dow, whose family business, Dow Furniture, is a local landmark on Route 1 in Waldoboro, has won and lost Senate races before, and is known as a reliable vote-getter, but a reluctant campaigner.
He was first elected to the Senate in 2004 and served two terms before stepping down in favor of fellow Republican David Trahan. He won a single House term in 2010 before again going back to his business and turning things over to a Republican successor.
When Trahan stepped down to become executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine late in 2011, Democrats were still smarting from the election of Gov. Paul LePage and worked the phones behind Chris Johnson, who upset Dow in a special election, and then won two full terms against other candidates. In 2016, however, Dow returned to the fray, ousted Johnson, and was re-elected two years later.
As a Senate leader, however, his moderate inclinations have sometimes run counter to his own caucus. When the Legislative Council voted on whether to require masks at the State House, for instance, Dow was the only Republican to vote in favor. And although he led the charge in April to reconvene, vowing to contest Gov. Janet Mills’ emergency powers, he was silent when, three months later, Senate and House Republicans boycotted votes to reconvene.
Johnson, twice Dow’s opponent and now Lincoln County Democratic Party chair, was among those who encouraged Maxmin to challenge Dow this year. If she wins, it will represent a cultural as well as a generational change.
With her activist background, Maxmin sees the Legislature as “a different way to engage” in the causes she champions. A campaign theme has been “resilience.” Asked to explain, she said: “To me, it means ensuring that all Mainers are being treated fairly, and equitably, and can thrive and survive whatever crisis comes our way.”
— Douglas Rooks
A closer look: Senate District 2
The contest in state Senate District 2 is among Maine’s most closely watched; a true legislative veteran, Democrat Mike Carpenter, is defending a seat Republicans think they can capture.
Carpenter, from Houlton, is one of few Democrats who could have won in 2016. The district has mostly elected Republicans since Carpenter first held it, from 1976-1988, before he was elected attorney general in 1990.
Told that Carpenter viewed himself as the underdog, state Rep. Trey Stewart, his Republican challenger, replied, “Really? He’s got 40 years of incumbency in one capacity or another.”
The candidates are a study in contrasts. Carpenter, 73, graduated from the University of Maine School of Law while serving his first tour in the Legislature.
Stewart, 26, is a second-year student there. He has a family tradition, though – his father and grandfather were prominent attorneys in his native Presque Isle. Now assistant minority leader, he’s one of the youngest members of the Legislative Council.
Stewart says he’s “pounding the pavement” while “staying six feet away and wearing a mask.” Carpenter has been mostly at home or in his law office, though he hopes to get out more soon.
Some aspects of the race are head-turning: Unusual for a Democrat, Carpenter was endorsed by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the National Rifle Association due to his role in offering the successful “blue paper” alternative to the “red flag” bill on firearms possession the Legislature enacted.
Both candidates talk about the economy when asked about issues. It’s been a long time since Aroostook County saw prosperity, Carpenter said, noting it has lost a third of its population over 30 years.
They see technology, and the sudden attractiveness of rural areas thanks to coronavirus protocols, as helping turn things around. While both support wider access to broadband connections, Stewart looks for alternatives: “Satellite may be part of it, because it’s too expensive to run fiber optic cable everywhere.”
Stewart said northern Maine needs more representation in state planning efforts, “not just one seat among 20.” He added, “We’re not a region that’s particularly rich, but we could be.”
Carpenter said his constituents are most concerned about health care, and how to afford it. But he, too, returns to the jobs question: “We need more young people. If we had a new business tomorrow offering 100 jobs, I’m not sure we could fill them.”
— Douglas Rooks
Campaigning amid coronavirus
This wasn’t what Stephanie Anderson imagined when she signed up to run as a Republican in state Senate District 29, amid an increasingly Democratic landscape in Cumberland County.
Since the coronavirus pandemic shutdown began in March, Anderson has been fixed in front of computers at her home in Cape Elizabeth.
“I’ve run a few times before,” the former seven-term Cumberland County district attorney said recently. “You get out, you meet with people. There are forums, debates and the occasional county fair. It’s fun, you have conversations.”
The 2020 campaign is nothing like that.
“I have three email accounts, Messenger, and personal and campaign Facebook pages. There are eight different places to look. I hear ‘ding ding ding’ and ask, ‘Where was that?’ I have three screens going, and each new message is like a scavenger hunt,” Anderson said.
Her opponent, state Rep. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, was first elected in 2018 and has an advantage she hadn’t anticipated when she sought to succeed term-limited Sen. Rebecca Millett, who’s now running for a Cape Elizabeth House seat.
Because Carney had a three-way primary race – she also won a primary two years earlier – she’d already knocked on 1,500 doors by March; the one-month delay in the primary, to July 14, also helped. Carney won with 57 percent of the vote.
Party professionals, and sometimes candidates themselves, try to avoid primary races, but Carney said it made her a better candidate. “It helped me to focus, to figure out how to campaign quite early on,” she said, with “more personal ways to connect, such as handwritten postcards.”
She’s done no more door-knocking, but there have been limited in-person events. Like all the candidates interviewed, Carney has been careful in any in-person contact with voters.
Anderson’s campaign has been more traditional; she has posted position papers online and hopes voters will read them. But the lack of personal contact frustrates her. “A guy at the grocery store hollered ‘I’m going to vote for you,’” she said, “but there was nowhere we could talk.”
It’s lonely at the top
At the other end of the state, District 2 covers the eastern half of Aroostook County and a largely unpopulated section of Penobscot County, running from Houlton, Oakfield, and New Limerick at the southern end all the way north to Presque Isle and Fort Fairfield.
Trey Stewart, the House minority leader challenging veteran Democratic Sen. Mike Carpenter, has put on a lot of miles, and is knocking on doors throughout the district.
“We wear masks, and we keep our distance,” he said, and overall the reaction has been favorable — perhaps in part because few strangers ever venture to these remote towns.
“I think people are a bit lonely, actually,” Stewart said.
Overall, enthusiasm for in-person campaigning has been greater among Republicans; President Donald Trump pushes it along with countless “reopening” measures, often in defiance of public health guidelines. Some Democrats have also ventured out, now that former Vice President Joe Biden has resumed in-person events, although with strict safety protocols.
Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, is among them.
“We’re all facing the challenge of how do we listen to voters, find out where they are,” Vitelli said. “Nobody’s yelled at me, which happened even under ‘normal’ conditions.”
She said voters she’s seen “are happy to see a human being, so they’re welcoming in that sense. I stand way back, with my mask on, and most of it is pretty brief. It combines, ‘How nice to see you’ with ‘I’m a little nervous.’ ”
In District 2, Carpenter has been busy at his “day jobs,” a reflection of legislators’ part-time pay. Carpenter does guardian ad litem work, representing children who are “wards of the state,” often after being removed from abusive homes.
“We’re on a rebound from the policies of the LePage administration,” Carpenter said, where two much-publicized murders of children left in the home despite child abuse complaints shocked the state. He currently has 140 cases, a high number representing “poverty and despair.” On weekends, Carpenter is in Acadia National Park, leading physically distanced horse-drawn carriage rides.
Stewart has, ironically, found some aspects of pandemic campaigning easier. Commuting more than 200 miles to Augusta, and nearly 300 to Portland, where he’s a student at the University of Maine School of Law, he has often clocked 1,000 miles a week. There have been no legislative sessions since March and, “where before there were no online law classes, and I attended every one,” he said, “now everything is online.”
Stewart’s previous mileage totals produced an unusual Ethics Commission complaint on Sept. 5 from Rommy Haines of Fort Fairfield, a former Maine Farm Bureau state director.
Haines said Stewart’s payment through his Leadership PAC for two sets of tires in 2018 and 2019, totaling $1,800, were “clear violations of the personal enrichment statute … you can’t raise money under the guise of election and then turn around and buy yourself fancy tires.”
The complaint was dismissed Sept. 30. Commissioner Meri Lowry, a Democrat from Portland, said “it only makes sense” that Stewart’s candidate recruitment work might require new tires, adding, “there’s nothing here for us to discuss.”
Stewart said the complaint preoccupied him for weeks and emphasized that candidates must be scrupulous about following the rules.
A watershed campaign
A Democrat running in Senate District 13, Rep. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, was among those who shifted from campaigning to community outreach as soon as the pandemic began. Although she grew up on a farm in Nobleboro and lived there until attending college, she was still shocked by how difficult it was for seniors to get food and medicine.
“There’s a real problem with transportation in our rural areas,” Maxmin said. “People don’t have cars, and many can’t afford them.”
Connecting farmers with those who need food has been one of the most satisfying parts of the work, she said. Free food pickups from farms in Waldoboro and Whitefield have remained popular into the fall.
Maxmin has been creative in reaching voters, including a drive-in rally at Wiscasset Speedway organized by Lincoln County Democrats. “A lot of the energy of campaigns comes from being with each other,” she said. “It’s been nice to have some spaces where we can do that, being careful and welcoming.”
Vitelli sees the 2020 campaign as potentially transformative.
“We’re challenged to look at the world afresh, with all we’ve seen from the virus, and the president,” she said. “How do we govern ourselves, and not just from a conservative or liberal point of view?”
Vitelli said the political system must respond.
“You have all the immediate concerns, and see how the virus is thrust on some people more than others, affecting health, jobs, school, child care,” she said, so she asks herself, “How do we think about the future? How can we be creative?”
— Douglas Rooks