AUGUSTA — During debate ahead of a vote last week that dealt another blow to health care expansion in Maine, a Democratic spokeswoman posted a photo of the Maine House of Representatives chamber, showing empty seats on the Republican side.

“Remember in November,” replied another operative.

Health care expansion was passed by Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, but without enough supporters to foil a future promised governor’s veto.

In the midst of the debate, all party candidates had to file for the 186 seats in the Maine Legislature ahead of the June primary and November general election.

Many of the matchups are set. National factors could aid Republicans in Maine, but it will depend largely on where the health care debate goes between now and November, likely to bring a pricey race to control the Maine Legislature after a record-breaking 2012.

Not in a long time has Maine seen such a well-defined wedge issue this far away from an election, observers say.

“It’s unusual,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Orono. “You’ve seen both sides agree on what we’re going to be fighting over. Sometimes we don’t even get that.”

CARE VS. BIG GOVERNMENT

Democrats, trying to replace Gov. Paul LePage with 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, will attack most Republicans for reluctance to buck the governor to expand MaineCare, the federal and state health care program for the poor, to cover more than 60,000 uninsured Mainers under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Republicans have said expansion of the state’s already ballooning MaineCare system — responsible already for perennial budget shortfalls — could further strain government coffers. Though some Republicans support expansion, their colleagues have prevented Democrats from passing the bill by two-thirds margins, which would be enough to override a LePage veto.

In justifying expansion, Democrats have said that turning down the federal government’s offer to pay all expansion costs for the first three years, after which it would pay 90 percent, is too good to pass up and would inject millions into the state’s economy.

“It’s something that we obviously feel very passionate about,” said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, the head of his party’s House election effort.

On the campaign trail, conservatives should hit back by interweaving the unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act with Democrats’ support of expanding MaineCare, which many conservatives call welfare. Once the system expands and some of the federal money goes away, many of them say the system could be unsustainable.

“Asking people for a bigger portion of their paychecks in this economy is a bad idea,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, leading the party’s Senate campaigns.

If Republicans are to take the majority, they have lots of work to do. The Senate, where they’re down four members, may be more attainable than the House, where they’re down by 31.

Now, Maine is one of 11 divided state governments nationwide. With LePage controlling the executive branch, Democrats won the Legislature in 2012 after losing it to Republicans for the first time in decades two years before.

Republicans’ recruitment effort may be a good sign for them. The Maine GOP said in a press release that it fielded candidates in all 186 legislative districts for the first time in about a decade. Democrats have candidates in all but six House districts where unenrolled candidates are expected to run.

That means a lot of Republicans will lose in liberal places such as Portland, where they were never likely to win. But Lance Dutson, a Republican strategist currently working for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ re-election bid, said it shows the party “has their act together” after a bad 2012 and it makes it so Democrats can’t forget about spending money on safe seats.

“It just ties their hands somewhat,” Dutson said.

But it’s how the health care arguments are defined and accentuated between now and November that could determine the successful party, Brewer said. To him, they are “different interpretations of the same issue.”

If Democrats can keep the health care argument to MaineCare expansion and point to real-life effects on Mainers, he said they may be most successful.

However, if Republicans can point to expansion as one example of Democrats growing government in a wanton fashion, he said they may win.

REPUBLICAN EDGE?

Signs point to Republicans gaining an edge nationally, as elections two years into presidential terms typically go against the party of the sitting president, as evidenced in Maine and nationally in 2010, the year of a Republican tide that gained the party control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

President Barack Obama’s most recent Gallup approval rating was at 45 percent, five percentage points lower than it was at this time two years ago.

But Eves said having Michaud, a popular congressman in the race against independent Eliot Cutler and LePage — who has a staunch but limited support base perhaps likely lower than 40 percent of the electorate — will fend off the typical midterm effect and influence liberal-leaning voters to come out.

“We need to pay attention to the midterm effect, but I think it will be neutralized by the fact that so many people in our base and in the middle will be coming out to vote,” Eves said.

However, the Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare, could impede Democrats. It continues to be unpopular, with a recent Gallup poll putting approval of the law around 40 percent. Thibodeau talked tough on the national law, saying many Mainers are seeing it “unraveling before their very eyes.”

Dutson said many voters in legislative races don’t know much about what happens in the State House, so an argument bringing Obamacare into the Maine conversation could be one with which his party could win voters.

“If Republicans can bundle or kind of judo the MaineCare expansion argument into the Obamacare argument, then I think they’ll have great success,” he said.

Democrats maintain that Medicaid expansion is very popular, but two Maine polls have diverged on that question, pegging support at or well above 50 percent. Still, Michael Cuzzi, a Democratic strategist, said his party’s candidates should have success with Michaud atop the ticket, couching expansion and health care generally as one of many “real pocketbook issues” for Mainers.

“Democrats are going to talk about health care and health insurance and the fact that there are going to be Mainers — lots of them, working class people — that will be struggling because they don’t have access to care,” he said.

WILL MONEY MATTER?

Politicos like to discount the effect of outside money in local races like in House districts, where candidates can meet most voters in person.

But in 2014, expect to see lots of mailers and targeted TV ads, which ballooned in 2012. In all, parties and political action committees spent $3.5 million on boosting and attacking and opposing legislative candidates, with 10 groups, including the two state parties, doing 92 percent of the spending.

Expect more this year, said Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a group that fights to boost the state’s taxpayer-funded election system.

Aside from the parties, the biggest outside spender in 2012 was The Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class, a pro-Democrat group tied to state employee and education unions that spent more than $750,000 in legislative races. Of that, $560,000 was spent attacking Republicans, much of it in negative ads targeted to certain districts.

Top Democratic donor S. Donald Sussman, the financier husband of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and majority share owner of MaineToday Media, owner of Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Portland Press Herald, has given money to the group.

Chris Quint, the executive director of the Maine State Employees Association and a board member of the committee, said the group will be active in 2014, but he wouldn’t comment on their plans.

Last time around, no district saw more money than that of Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, who beat an incumbent in 2012 after outside groups spent more than $450,000 on his race alone.

The Senate’s only doctor, he has also been one of the most vocal proponents of Medicaid expansion. He’s now running against ex-Bangor Mayor Cary Weston, who many observers see as a stronger Republican challenger than Nichi Farnham, Gratwick’s opponent last time.

The race could draw even more money, Brewer said. But if voters are deciding who to support on their expansion stances, the choice isn’t totally black and white.

Gratwick won’t back off his stance, saying health care is “the issue” in Maine “and I’d put that all in capital letters.” He called Republican economic arguments against it false.

Weston said he supports expansion generally, but would only vote for it if convinced that it would help control existing runaway costs in the MaineCare program. He said he would have voted against this year’s expansion bill because he didn’t think it went far enough toward that end. Still, he called expansion the right thing to do.

However, “there’s a lot of things that need to change” fiscally in state government “in order to do the right things,” he said.

On the anti-expansion side, Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, will also be a target of Democrats. She’s been a top foil for them on the issue, saying on the House floor recently that expansion could unleash a “fiscal tsunami” on state government.

But Sanderson has dug in on her stance with stated support from her district, citing mostly anti-expansion feedback from constituents. In 2012, Sanderson beat a former legislator by 140 votes in the third-most expensive House race for outside spenders, who dumped in more than $43,000.

It could see more this year, when she faces union activist Joel Pitcher, of Jefferson. But will that matter?

“That question will be answered by the district in November,” Sanderson said.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652mshepherd@centralmaine.comTwitter: @mikeshepherdme