A day after reports circulated about a Republican challenge to Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, possible contender John Frary said he no longer plans to run for the seat.
Frary was considering a run for the Senate seat because of his disapproval of Saviello’s support for Medicaid expansion, but news of Frary’s efforts resulted in party leadership backlash and a flood of rumors that he didn’t want to continue to fuel by running, he said.
Saviello said Wednesday that the brief challenge by Frary did not change his stance on Medicaid expansion, an issue that has divided Gov. Paul LePage and legislative Democrats and underscores the political pitfalls for Republicans who support it during an election year.
“I’d be more than glad to sit down and to talk with (Frary), as with anyone, about why I stand where I stand,” Saviello said. “We may agree to disagree, but at least then the people will know why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Frary said he particularly did not want to be a part of the rumor that LePage, who is opposed to Medicaid expansion, was supporting the race in order oust Saviello.
“I don’t want to feed the meme of the governor as the beast of Blaine House,” Frary said by phone Wednesday.
While Saviello has been targeted by conservative groups because he favors Medicaid expansion, he is also popular among voters, handily winning his last two elections, and because he isn’t likely to be knocked off in an election is backed by party leaders. LePage on Tuesday sent Saviello a note saying he was not behind Frary’s candidacy.
Democrat Joanne Dunlap, of Rangely Plantation, who lost to Saviello in 2012, said Tuesday she is a candidate for the seat. Some political bloggers had speculated Frary’s candidacy would push Saviello to run as an independent — which the former Democrat has done before — splitting the conservative vote and giving his seat to a Democrat.
Establishment Republicans have reason to back Saviello over Frary, namely because Saviello isn’t likely to be knocked off in a general election.
Franklin County leans conservative, with Republicans holding a 746-person edge against Democrats, according to August 2013 state voter data. But there are nearly 1,200 more unenrolled voters than Republican voters. District 17, which had been District 18, not only includes all of Franklin County, but also Mercer, Smithfield, Vienna, Rome, Belgrade, Fayette and Mount Vernon.
Ryan Morgan, chairman of the Franklin County Republicans, said in a Facebook post that he stands by Saviello because the senator listens to different opinions in an effort to solve a problem.
“We need to be more than a party that just votes no. We need to lead and solve the issue,” he said.
Expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act would reimburse fully states for the expansion for the first three years before dropping down to 90 percent in subsequent years. It would cover 70,000 to 100,000 low-income Mainers.
Majority Democrats say turning down the federal government’s offer would be bad economics and bad policy. But most legislative Republicans have steadfastly opposed Medicaid expansion, largely because the state’s Department of Health and Human Services already has perennial shortfalls because of cost overruns in MaineCare, Maine’s version of Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor.
Only nine Republicans in both chambers voted for Medicaid expansion in 2013: six in the House of Representatives and three in the Senate, including Saviello and Assistant Minority Leader Roger Katz, of Augusta, who brokered a deal that got slightly more Republican support than Democrats’ initial plan. It still failed to get enough support to override Gov. Paul LePage’s veto.
Those few Republicans who have supported expansion — or simply indicated open-mindedness toward it — have been targeted by conservative groups.
Saviello was on a list of 14 Republican lawmakers released on Facebook earlier by Maine Taxpayers United, a conservative group led by Beth O’Connor, of Berwick, the former vice chairwoman of the state GOP. The post urges people to contact the legislators and tell them to vote against expansion.
In a blog post cheering Frary’s initial entry to the race, O’Connor criticized Saviello, saying she “would love to see John crush Tom in the primary, but it is said Tom lacks the intestinal fortitude for a primary and will jump ship and run as an independent.”
Similarly, the Maine Heritage Policy Center started running Facebook ads targeting Republicans thought to be considering voting for expansion, including Reps. Corey Wilson and Matthew Pouliot, both of Augusta.
On Tuesday, Pouliot said on Twitter that “he’s keeping an open mind” toward expansion. Wilson said the more he’s attacked by O’Connor’s group, the more he may lean toward supporting expansion.
Saviello said Wednesday he can think of about five people who contacted him because they are against the expansion, and he said he replies to messages or meets with those residents to explain his stance.
“I’ve also had hundreds talk to me about the expansion who are in favor of it. They are the ones who gave me the margins that I win by in the elections, and I have a duty to represent them,” he said.
He said his decision, made through research and resident opinions, was not swayed by news coverage of Frary.
“I don’t negotiate in the press,” he said. “One of the biggest employers in the area, the hospital, has given their support, which is one of the main reasons for my support (of expansion).”
Frary said he still feels strongly about Medicaid expansion.
“I still feel that Medicaid expansion would be detrimental to the economy,” Frary said. “The population does not want to hear about more taxes, and what is going to happen when the money runs out?”