The 2014 gubernatorial race is dominating election coverage, but a less visible yet equally consequential battle — funded heavily by outside groups — is being waged for control of the Legislature.

The party that gains a majority in the Senate and House of Representatives will exert a major influence over what can be accomplished by the next occupant of the Blaine House — Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud or independent Eliot Cutler.

The Democratic and Republican parties, together with well-funded special interest groups, are pouring money into key legislative races, with spending levels rising in the wake of court decisions that have loosened contribution limits. These groups, frustrated by the prolonged gridlock in Congress, are increasingly turning to state legislatures as arenas for achieving public policy objectives.

“Unlike the campaign for votes, the campaign for resources has become increasingly nationalized,” said University of Connecticut political science professor Paul Herrnson, referring to the dispersion of outside money into state-level campaigns.

“You can imagine there are many organizations in D.C. and in other major population centers where there are businesses, unions, trade associations … that have interests other than where those entities are located,” said Herrnson, who directs UConn’s Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.

With six weeks remaining before the Nov. 4 election, “independent expenditures” have already topped $4 million compared with the record $3.6 million that was spent by outside groups in 2012, when Democrats seized control of both chambers of the Legislature.

The party has an 88-57 edge in the House, where there are two empty seats and four held by independent members. Democrats have a 19-15 edge in the Senate, where the one independent, Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth, is not seeking re-election.

The Maine Republican Party recruited 150 candidates for the 151 House seats last spring, and its chairman, Rick Bennett, says both chambers of the Legislature are ripe for the party’s taking.

But Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant says Democrats have the advantage of more incumbents and hope to capitalize on LePage’s polarizing influence, which they view as a liability for some Republican legislative candidates.

“Gov. Paul LePage is still a drag on their ticket,” Grant said. “He’s unpopular and they have to run on the same ballot as him.”

Among the 186 legislative races, the balance of power could be determined by roughly two dozen contests. The Portland Press Herald analyzed voter registration figures for each district, past election results and campaign finance data to identify a handful of those contests.

Many of the key districts were also battlegrounds in 2012. However, legislative redistricting in 2013, votes on key issues and the power of incumbency have altered the playing field.

The Senate features seven races that could be characterized as toss-ups, and targeted spending by outside groups indicate that there are at least 15 districts where the election will at least be competitive.

Three key races include District 30, where incumbent Democrat James Boyle of Gorham faces a challenge from Republican Amy Volk of Scarborough, who is seeking to move up from her House seat; District 25, where Democrat Cathy Breen of Falmouth is running against Republican Cathy Manchester of Gray for a seat being vacated by Woodbury, the Yarmouth independent; and District 9 in Bangor, where incumbent Democrat Geoff Gratwick faces a challenge from Republican Cary Weston, a former mayor of Bangor.

Other Senate contests to watch: District 13, including towns in Knox and part of Kennebec counties, Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, vs. Republican Les Fossel of Alna; District 7, Bar Harbor and Ellsworth, Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, vs. Democrat Theodore Koffman of Bar Harbor; District 21 in Lewiston, an open seat, featuring Republican Patricia Gagne vs. Democratic Rep. Nathan Libby; District 20, which includes Auburn, Mechanic Falls, Minot and Poland, Sen. John Cleveland, D-Poland, vs. Republican Eric Brakey; and District 22, which includes Durham, Greene, Leeds, Lisbon, Sabattus and Turner, Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, vs. Democratic challenger Guy Desjardins.

Each Senate district covers nearly 38,000 Mainers, more than four times as large as House districts, each of which represents nearly 8,800 people.

The smaller size makes identifying House swing districts more difficult. The gap between party registration is often less pronounced. Additionally, incumbents represent fewer people, meaning they’re often closer to their constituencies and more difficult to unseat.

All told, there are probably 30 or 40 potential battleground seats.

Three key races are District 86 in Augusta, where incumbent Republican Matthew Pouliot faces Democrat Monica Castellanos; District 90 in Newcastle and Damariscotta, where Republican Anna Morkeski is challenging the Democratic incumbent, Michael Devin; and District 99 in Waldo County, where incumbent Brian Jones of Freedom, a Democrat, faces not only a Republican challenger, MaryAnne Kinney of Knox, but also a loss of voter support after his arrest last week on a charge of indecent conduct.

Other House races to watch include: District 111 in Norridgewock, Democratic Rep. Ann Dorney vs. Republican Bradlee Farrin; District 126 in Bangor, Democratic Rep. John Schneck vs. Republican Douglas Damon; and District 151, which includes several communities in Aroostook County, Republican Rep. Allen Nadeau vs. Democrat John Martin.

Mainers should brace for an onslaught of ads — mailers in particular — that attempt to prop up or tear down legislative candidates.

The Republican State Leadership Committee has already identified several Maine legislative contests as among its “Sweet 16.” The tax-exempt group, funded by assorted tobacco, insurance and fossil fuel interests, has already raised $20.4 million. Its presence has not yet been felt in this year’s Maine election, but it spent nearly $900,000 in 2012 and in 2010 dropped a late $400,000 ad blitz on key swing districts.

Jill Bader, a spokeswoman with the group, would not discuss its investment in Maine this year, but said the state is “a top target.”

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the RSLC’s counterpart, has also been involved here in past legislative contests. It spent $355,000 in 2012, mostly through contributions to Democratic political action committees. The group, funded primarily by a variety of labor unions, spent over $17 million nationally in 2012. It has not detailed its level of investment in Maine this year.

The Maine Republican Party boasted last spring that it had recruited candidates for 150 of the 151 House races. However, since then nine candidates have fallen off the roster, including two whose residency in their districts had come into question.

Democrats quickly seized on those candidate withdrawals, citing “LePage fatigue,” a reference to some Republicans’ reluctance to align with the governor’s divisive style of governing.

Bennett, the Republican Party chairman, called that argument “absurd,” an attempt to “remake reality.”

As for the claim that LePage is a liability for some Republicans, Bennett responded: “I hope that reflects in their strategy this year. From a candidate perspective and recruiting candidates to run, I have never seen a more enthusiastic group of Republican candidates.”

Steve Mistler — 791-6345

[email protected]

Twitter: stevemistler

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