WASHINGTON — Democrat Jon Hinck, a state representative from Portland, formally kicks off his campaign today for the U.S. Senate seat held by GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.

Hinck is expected to make his announcement at the University of Maine in Orono.

That sets up a Democrat primary between Hinck and former Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who is also a former state representative from Old Town. Dunlap has filed papers with the Federal Election Commission officially declaring his candidacy and soon will hold his own public campaign launch.

There isn’t likely to be a lot of personal animosity on display between the two Democrats, who will be focused on challenging Snowe, who won re-election in 2006 with 74 percent of the vote and had more than $3.2 million in campaign cash on hand as of Sept. 30.

Snowe is being challenged from the right in the GOP primary by two tea party-affiliated candidates, Scott D’Amboise of Lisbon Falls and Andrew Ian Dodge of Harpswell.

Political pundits weighed in on the Democrat candidates strengths and weaknesses. Dunlap has good name recognition from being secretary of state, but Hinck benefits from being from the Democratic stronghold of the Portland area.

“I would be hard pressed to say who is the front-runner or the favorite,” said Mike Cuzzi, a Maine Democrat and public affairs consultant in Portland who was President Barack Obama’s New Hampshire primary deputy state director and ran the successful re-election campaign in 2006 of then-U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, D-1st District.

“But I think all the thunder will be focused on Olympia. I imagine it will be a pretty sedate primary in terms of barbs at each other. Both will be willing to create clear distinctions with Olympia, and that ultimately is a good thing, because it will create interest and enthusiasm around the race that otherwise might not be there.”

Even if Hinck and Dunlap don’t fire away much at each other, they offer Democratic primary voters contrasting backgrounds.

Hinck, 57, is an attorney and environmental activist in Portland whose practice includes a focus on litigation involving consumer and environmental issues. He has worked for the Natural Resources Council of Maine and was a co-founder of the environmental group Greenpeace USA. He is giving up running for a fourth term in the Legislature to make the Senate bid.

Hinck serves on the Legislature’s energy committee and in 2010 won a unanimous ruling from the state ethics commission that he didn’t have a conflict of interest on wind power legislation even though his wife, a lawyer, represents several wind power developers.

Dunlap, 46, was a four-term state representative until 2004, served on the committee overseeing inland fisheries and wildlife and stresses his involvement in outdoors activities such as hunting and fishing.

Dunlap most recently was interim executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine – and remains on the board – before he stepped down earlier this year to make his Senate run.

Dennis Bailey, a Maine political consultant, said one of Dunlap’s selling points to primary voters will be that he has a broader reach in northern Maine and is the Democrat best able to appeal to independents and moderate Democrats in the general election.

“But that doesn’t always play in a primary,” Bailey said. “Democrats always seem to go with the progressive candidate rather than play the bank shot.”

On the other hand, Bailey said, Hinck is likely to face opposition from a vocal group of Mainers who are opposed to much of the wind power development going on in the state.

Sandy Maisel, a government professor at Colby College and a Democrat, said Hinck and Dunlap are credible candidates but share a common problem: it will be tough to persuade Maine voters to fire Snowe.

“I think Dunlap is better positioned in the primary, but I don’t think either will create much excitement,” Maisel said. “A majority of Democrats will vote for Snowe. We (Mainers) have a long record of supporting incumbent senators who make national reputations for themselves,” including former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell and former Republican Sen. William Cohen.

Jonathan Riskind — 791-6280

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