BY STEVE MISTLER
State House Bureau
Maine Democrats made some progress Tuesday in their bid to retake one or both chambers of the State House. However, with many of the 186 races still undecided, it’s unclear if the Democratic gains outpaced some pick-ups by Republicans.
Based on unofficial results and party sources, Democrats picked up five seats currently held by Republicans in the House of Representatives.
Democrats also secured a huge victory in the most expensive state Senate race in state history.
Republicans hold a 77-70 edge in the House (two members unenrolled, two seats vacant) and a 19-15 advantage in the Senate (one unenrolled).
Control of one chamber will allow Democrats to check LePage, who has hinted that additional reductions in state-funded health care for low-income Mainers and other government programs lead his policy priorities.
At stake is a Republican agenda led by Gov. Paul LePage that has been laden with change and, at times, controversy.
Democrats, who held a grip on state government for nearly 40 years before getting swept from power in 2010, are hoping to pick up one chamber of the Legislature, maybe two.
As of 11 p.m. Tuesday night, Democrats’ biggest win was in Senate District 32, in Bangor and Hermon, where Democrat challenger Geoffrey Gratwick defeated Republican incumbent Nichi Farnham by an estimated 200 votes. The Democratic pickup was bolstered by two other victories over incumbent House Republicans in the Bangor area.
Outside groups spent close to $500,000 in District 32, making it the most expensive legislative race in state history during an election that topped $3.4 million in spending by parties and political action committees. The $3.4 million is also a record and more than doubled the $1.5 million record set in 2010.
Maine Republican Party Chairman David Sorensen said the District 32 race would go down as one of worst examples of politicking in Maine history.
Sorensen cited Democratic campaign mailers that claimed Farnham had violated Maine election law when she had in fact been cleared.
“It was a shameful example of political campaigning,” Sorensen said. “It was desperate.”
Ben Grant, the chairman for the Maine Democratic Party, said that the District 32 race and several others were pointing in the right direction. Grant said the party had hit its targets in picking up Republican held House seats in Gorham, Topsham and Bangor while protecting Democratic incumbents elsewhere.
“We’re not ready to call it a victory yet,” Grant said. “But we’re trending in the right direction.”
Sorensen said it was too early to tell much of anything.
“We’ve lost some seats but we’re also picking up a lot of blue (Democratic) seats,” he said. “There are a lot of surprises, but we’re very confident.”
Republicans have campaigned on finishing what they started in 2010. They enacted the largest tax cut in state history, although it’s not entirely paid for. A contentious overhaul of the state’s health insurance laws was passed, along with a charter school bill and initiatives to ease regulation.
Republicans’ motto in recent weeks has been “promises made, promises kept.” Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the Republican majority has run roughshod over the middle class and working Mainers.
The battle for the Legislature has been the most expensive in state history. Outside groups have spent over $3.4 million attempting to influence legislative races, shattering the record $1.5 million spent in 2010.
The spending underscores the high stakes.
Over $100,000 from outside groups has gone into eight state senate races, including three races receiving more than $200,000 each.
Much of the money has been funneled from insurance, health care, labor and other interest groups, which could have policy-making implications for the Legislature.
In 2010 Democrats claimed that they were ambushed by national Republican groups, most notably the Republican State Leadership Committee, a Virginia-based organization that dumped $400,000 worth of negative ads into several state Senate races during the final week of the election.
The Republican committee returned to Maine this year, spending close to $800,000 according to the latest filings. However, this time Democratic groups have countered.
The Washington, D.C.-based Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee was one of the largest contributors, with at least $405,000 going to Maine-based PACs. The group, bankrolled largely by national labor groups, gave just $81,000 to fund Maine races in 2010.
National labor groups also financed the most active Democratic PACs in 2012.
Democratic groups used the additional resources on polls and advertising, but they also spent big on old school campaigning: voter canvassing and outreach.
The Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive activist group, shouldered a lot of the outreach, deploying volunteers to key battleground districts.
Not only did the group build support for Democratic candidates, it also registered an estimated 4,000 new voters. The voter registration drive hit several legislative districts, including battleground races like Senate District 15 in Androscoggin County.
The alliance registered 520 new voters in District 15, an effort aimed at toppling incumbent Republican Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, of Poland. The group deployed the same strategy in 2008, helping Democrat Deb Simpson defeat Snowe-Mello by 104 votes.
Tipping said Monday that the alliance had always focused on grassroots efforts. But it and other progressive groups also had a head start on their Republican rivals because their campaign apparatus and volunteers were already in place following the 2011 citizens effort to reinstate Maine’s same-day voter registration law.
Republicans had a similar advantage in June of 2010, when conservatives waged an impressive campaign to repeal a tax reform law passed by the Legislature.
“Our people were already engaged and angry that (these folks) had attempted to take away voting rights,” Tipping said.
Last week Republicans began grumbling about “shadowy” political action committees and outside groups.
By midday Tuesday, Sorensen released a statement claiming that the party faced an uphill battle. Sorensen blamed two things: money and the media.
“We have been outspent by the Democrats and have had to contend with some media outlets that are demonstrably hostile to Republicans,” Sorensen said. “The fact that we can, have, and will overcome these disadvantages speaks to the strength of the Republican message and the dedication of our grassroots volunteers.”
Sorensen specifically targeted one PAC, The Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class, which amassed over $500,000 to bankroll the alliance’s efforts and spend on political advertising.
S. Donald Sussman donated $10,000 to another PAC, Maine’s Middle Class, and more than $500,000 to Democratic groups and candidates. Sussman is the majority owner of the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram and several other MaineToday newspapers.
While Republicans may have been outspent, they were not cash poor. The Maine Republican Party spent nearly $1 million on legislative races, and four conservative PACs were among the top 10 PAC spenders.
In addition to the corporation-funded Republican Leadership Committee, several Republican candidates received a late boost from Grover Norquist. The Republican activist’s Americans for Tax Reform group dropped $23,540 to bolster seven candidates on the eve of the election.
The parties have focused on a number of battleground races. Those contests could serve as bellwethers, but the final tallies may not be available until Tuesday morning.
Steve Mistler — 791-6345