With presidential races in both major parties electrifying voters, local Democratic and Republican party leaders are expecting heavy turnout at this weekend’s Maine caucuses.

“It’s probably the most important election with long-lasting effects than any election since Lincoln got elected,” said Tom Waddell, a Democratic organizer of the Litchfield caucus in Kennebec County. “People are concerned and several people said they’d probably be there, but couldn’t say for sure. I impressed upon them: This is a very important election.”

Anxiety over the future and America’s place in the world, as well as the unconventional campaign with a huge number of candidates is driving interest in the presidential race, state GOP Chairman Rick Bennett said.

“People are not only choosing the future of the country; they are also defining the Republican Party going forward,” he said.

Joanne Dunlap, chairwoman of the Franklin County Democrats, said excitement about the caucuses is approaching the level it was at in 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama was battling then-Sen. Hillary Clinton for the nomination.

“In 2008 the decision wasn’t clear at the time, so Maine had something to say,” Dunlap said. “I feel like it is the same thing this year.”

Republicans will caucus Saturday at several sites in each county. Kennebec, Franklin and Somerset county Democrats will caucus in nearly every municipality in the three central Maine counties on Sunday.

The Maine Green Independent Party also will hold nominating caucuses Sunday in a handful of towns, including Fairfield, Solon, Litchfield and Anson.

The rough and tumble 2016 presidential race has galvanized voters, and the parties are expecting a heavy turnout of party faithful and new voters to elect delegates to stand behind their favored candidate at state and national party conventions later this year.

Democrats will hold traditional caucuses, with voters dividing up into groups based on their preference of nominee and then allocating proportional delegates based on how many supporters candidates attract. The two major candidates on the Democratic side are Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

With four candidates — Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich — competing for the Republican nomination, the field is still open and Maine’s delegates are up for grabs. Trump held a rally Thursday in Portland and Ted Cruz is scheduled to appear Friday at an event in Orono.

Those appearances, as well as numerous other campaign events in the lead-up to the caucuses, shows Maine is on candidates’ radar, Bennett said.

“It certainly signals that people are taking the caucus results from Maine very seriously and they want to compete for them,” he said.

Maine Republicans and Democrats award delegates proportionately, so the state could be important to total delegate counts in the competitive races. Candidates from both parties visited the state in the days before the caucuses.

Democrats have caucuses scheduled Sunday afternoon in locations in nearly every town in Franklin County, although a few of the smaller communities will cluster with larger towns nearby. Some of the towns have never had a caucus before, Dunlap said.

The schedule is the same in Somerset and Kennebec counties, where party organizers also expect large numbers.

In Litchfield, for example, organizers moved the caucus location from the Town Office to Carrie Ricker Middle School to make more space for the expected turnout. Waddell, the Litchfield caucus organizer, said that during recent Democratic caucus training, party officials told everyone to expect large turnout if Sanders was still in the race against Clinton.

Waddell said he had more than 100 people show up for his caucus in 2008 — when Obama and Clinton battled in the primary race — and fewer than a dozen in 2012, when Obama ran for re-election. He expects turnout this year to be somewhere in between but said it could be higher, noting that the replacement of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia likely hangs in the balance.

John Frary, a committee member of the Franklin County Republican Committee, said he’s expecting well-organized caucuses Saturday that will draw a lot of interest.

“They are expecting a nice big turnout,” he said.

Emily Roderick, chairwoman of the Kennebec County Republican Committee, said she thinks the visit of Trump and Cruz will energize people to vote at the caucuses.

“There is a lot of energy about the caucus; people realize this is an important election,” she said.

Joan Bradley, secretary of the Somerset County Democrats, said that Sanders, the liberal senator from Vermont, has attracted a lot of interest from local voters. The effect is similar to when President Barack Obama first ran eight years ago, she said.

Sanders campaigned Wednesday in Portland and predicted that high turnout would mean a strong showing in the state.

“I think there is a lot of support for Hillary, too; some of it is just interest in Sanders’ ideas,” Bradley said. “He is saying things people have thought and really want to voice on a national scale.”

Like the Democrats, Republicans are expecting a heavy turnout of party faithful, but Republican Party headquarters also has received a lot of calls from unenrolled voters who want to participate, Bennett said.

Republicans have changed the format to allow as much participation as possible, the GOP’s Bennett said. The events at centralized locations in the state will be a hybrid between traditional caucuses and primaries, and voters will cast secret ballots for their preferred candidate, he added.

“We are trying to keep it as easy as possible,” he said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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