The candidates for the Legislature have been chosen. The races are set.

On your marks. Get set. Rhetoric.

With a polarizing figure such as Gov. Paul LePage in the Blaine House, the biennial battle for the 186 seats in the Legislature — and control of state government — may seem a little louder in 2012 than in previous years, and it’s starting early.

The final deadline has expired for parties to draft legislative candidates. Democrats failed to draft candidates in 10 races, the Republicans in four. Both parties are claiming they have the upper hand.

Officials in both parties said recruitment efforts were at an all-time high. At stake is control of the Legislature and, potentially, the future of LePage’s policy agenda.

Republicans currently hold a 77-70 lead in the House, which also has two unenrolled members and two seats vacant. The Senate has 19 Republicans, 15 Democrats and one unenrolled member.

Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant cautioned against reading into 10 Democratic vacancies, which exceeds the five unfilled spots the party had in 2010 and the two slots in 2008. He said energy in the party is high, thanks to LePage and a Republican majority that overreached with unpopular policies.

“I’ve said from the beginning that Gov. LePage and the agenda that Republicans have pursued in Augusta is a galvanizing force on our side, and that’s proving true both in terms of interest and people’s willingness to participate,” Grant said.

Grant said the party was targeting 30 to 40 races in the House of Representatives and about 10 in the Senate. The goal isn’t to take back the just House, he said, but the Senate, too. He said Democrats will be competitive “all over the map,” including some traditional GOP strongholds.

Maine GOP Chairman Charlie Webster isn’t buying it. Webster said Democrats had recruited “far left” candidates who can’t relate to Mainers.

“They’ve gone out and recruited a bunch people from Occupy Maine and the Maine People’s Alliance (a progressive advocacy group),” Webster said. “Somebody who protests in Occupy Maine probably isn’t going to win any district outside of Portland.”

He added, “We’ve gone out and recruited a bunch of blue-collar people — plumbers, waitresses, truck drivers, teachers, hairdressers — people Mainers can relate to.”

Officials in the GOP also noted that Democrats failed to draft candidates in 10 districts, including Senate District 12, a seat currently held by Democrat Sen. Bill Diamond, of Windham. The absence of a Democrat would appear to give Republican hopeful James Hamper the inside track to victory.

However, Grant said that in some cases, local Democratic county committees made the decision not to put forward a candidate, believing that the unenrolled candidates in the races have a decent chance of winning and would caucus with Democrats if they do.

Of the 10 races in which Democrats didn’t field a candidate, five feature an independent.

Webster said Democrats were trying to fool voters into supporting independents that are actually Democrats.

“I think it’s a strategy, but I don’t think it’s a winning strategy,” Webster said.

In Senate District 12, unenrolled candidate Martin Shuer will take on Hamper. In House District 42, which consists of Waldo and Winterport, former Democratic Rep. Joseph Brooks is running as an independent against Republican contender Leo LaChance. Brooks served three terms as a Democrat between 1997 and 2002.

James Campbell, a former Republican, served four terms in House District 138, which consists of Alfred and Limerick. Campbell is running as an independent against Republican Judee Meyer.

“Our team is motivated and confident that Maine voters will want to send more Republicans to Augusta to become part of the solution that is working,” said House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, adding that “small-business owners, farmers, fishermen, and teachers — people from every walk of life” — are among the candidates.

Republicans say they’re hoping to build on a record of easing state regulations, tax cuts, paring welfare programs and other changes they made during the current two-year session, the first in nearly a half century in which there was a GOP House, Senate and governor at the same time.

Webster said the popularity of the Republican agenda was reflected in candidate recruitment efforts. The party’s four vacancies matches 2010 and is a vast improvement from 2008, when the GOP failed to run candidates in 16 districts.

“It could be one of the best recruitment years we’ve ever had,” Webster said.

Both parties scrambled to meet the March 15 deadline to ensure that they had a chance to draft candidates. By July 9, the secretary of state reported 48 candidate withdrawals — the most in recent history, according to a department spokeswoman.

Secretary of state officials can’t explain why so many candidates who filed to run in March ultimately bowed out. However, the flurry of activity might reflect the high stakes Democrats and Republicans have assigned to control of the Legislature.

It’s not uncommon for parties to put forth primary candidates who have no intention of running during the general election. If the parties don’t meet the March 15 deadline to get on the primary ballot, they cannot draft a candidate for the general election. So-called placeholders buy county committees more time — almost four months — to recruit candidates who have a chance to win.

“It’s common sense,” said Webster, who said that three replacement candidates helped the GOP gain control of the House in 2010.

Steve Mistler — 791-6345

[email protected]

Twitter: @stevemistler

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