AUGUSTA — Maine Democrats reeling from devastating election losses are preparing to choose a new leader this weekend to guide the party as it tries to recapture the faith of the state’s voters.

Ben Grant, chairman of the party for the last four years, announced his decision to step down days after Democrats lost their bid for the Blaine House, the 2nd Congressional District, control of the state Senate and several seats in the state House.

Grant, who said he planned to leave no matter the outcome of the elections, is urging his successor to examine where the party fell short. He said it’s clear that Democrats need to find a better way to explain their policies to voters.

“We have to keep redefining our message,” Grant said after declaring last week that he wouldn’t seek re-election. “We put everything we could into the field effort. But we have to get better about talking to voters about the issues.”

While Republican Gov. Paul LePage ran on the clear and popular platform of welfare reform, Democrat Mike Michaud and his campaign struggled to define what their message was in the three-man race with independent Eliot Cutler, “other than that they were not Paul LePage,” said Mark Brewer, a University of Maine political science professor.

Grant acknowledged that Democrats overestimated the extent to which voters would be turned off by LePage’s sometimes off-color remarks and combative style, saying they thought his “personality issues would cause people to dislike him and not vote for him, but that turned out to be wrong.”

Phil Bartlett, a National Committeeman and former state Senate majority leader who is vying to replace Grant, said the party needs to broaden its base and speak to the emotions of Maine voters.

“The Republicans really had the emotion behind their message and they really did a good job of giving voice to the very real anxiety that people are feeling,” Bartlett said. “As Democrats, we have to recognize that … without backtracking on our core values.”

Others vying Sunday to lead the party include Melissa Sterry, said Mary-Erin Casale, the party’s executive director. Sterry lost to Grant for the chairman’s job in 2011. The party’s state committee also will elect a vice chairman, secretary and treasurer. Current Vice Chairwoman Pam Fenrich is unopposed for re-election.

The midterm elections were not just bruising for Democrats in Maine.

Republicans seized on President Obama’s unpopularity to make gains in state Legislatures across the country, win control of the U.S. Senate and come out on top in hotly contested governor’s races in Michigan, Illinois and Massachusetts.

Mike Cuzzi, a former Democratic strategist, said the party needs to go beyond simply reshaping its message and put forward new policies that appeal to working-class residents.

Republicans’ platform of cracking down on welfare abuse and lowering taxes and energy costs are “issues that tap very deeply into voters’ continuing economic anxieties and fears,” said Cuzzi, who worked on Obama’s first presidential campaign in New Hampshire.

Instead, Democrats ran on the need to expand Medicaid and raise the minimum wage – policies that affect the state’s poorest – and invest in renewable energy, he said.

“When we’re talking about paper mills shutting down because they cannot access natural gas, it just smacks of disconnected elitism,” Cuzzi said of Democrats’ push for wind and solar power in the campaigns. “The Republicans were strong and resonated with working-class voters; Democrats were weak and misdirected.”

Returning to Augusta to pick their leaders this past week, top Democrats in the Legislature acknowledged that the elections were a setback but expressed confidence that they would rebound, pointing to their ability to regain control of both chambers two years ago after big losses in 2010. They say they believe they have the right policies and vision for Maine.

“We will hold the line for hope, for opportunity, for the promise of a better future,” Rep. Mark Eves said after being unanimously re-elected speaker of the House by his caucus on Wednesday. “We will stand tall.”

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