The sleepy Democratic primary for governor woke up with a jolt last week with two events, either of which could end up being the political story of the year.

Or not. Since they were both things we’ve never seen before, it will take a while to figure out what they mean.

The first was the surprise disclosure that a political action committee supporting Attorney General Janet Mills would spend $200,000 in the last six days of the race, almost all of it attacking challenger Adam Cote.

Outside spending in campaigns is not new, but no one in Maine has ever seen this much cash dumped into a primary race so close to the finish line. And no one has seen so much spent quite in this way – web ads and social media posts that are only seen by some voters.

The other big development involved two different Democrats in the seven-way race – former House Speaker Mark Eves and progressive advocate Betsy Sweet – who announced that they planned to vote for each other, and they hoped that their supporters would do the same.

In a traditional election that would make no sense, but since this primary will be the first in Maine history to be decided by ranked-choice voting, it could be a difference-maker.


Eves and Sweet have nearly identical positions on most issues and they appeal to many of the same voters, who make up the activist wing of the Democratic Party.

In a traditional election, a vote for one candidate would come at the expense of the other, and the two would be under pressure to attack each other. But since voters can rank their choices, that doesn’t have to happen. Ranked-choice elections employ a series of run-offs where the candidate with the fewest votes gets eliminated each round, and their supporters’ second-choice votes are added to the totals of the candidates still in the race.

If either Eves or Sweet is eliminated before someone gets more than 50 percent of the vote (and is declared the winner), their votes would be consolidated behind one candidate. Instead of competing against each other, Eves and Sweet can combine forces, and their supporters will know that if their favorite cannot win, their vote will go to the person who most closely represents their views.

So what does any of this mean?

The advertising on Mills’ behalf looks like an easy one. Negative campaigning works. That’s why people do it. It’s hard to believe that spending that much money to hurt someone won’t hurt him, at least a little.

I haven’t seen any polling, but I’m sure the people spending the money have, and they must have thought that Cote was surging and Mills, the front-runner, needed him to stop.


The content of the ad released Thursday attacked him for registering as a Republican in 2000, which he said he did so he could vote for John McCain in a presidential primary against George W. Bush.

It’s an odd attack coming from Mills, who comes from a family of Republicans, including her brother Peter, a centrist former legislator who is still popular with a lot of Democrats.

And there aren’t many Republicans more popular with the other party than McCain, the dying former prisoner of war who came out of a hospital bed last summer to cast the vote that saved Obamacare.

These ads are never really about specifics, though. The way to attack an outsider like Cote is to use his lack of baggage against him, suggesting that there’s too much we don’t know about him for him to be trustworthy. For people who are just tuning in to the race, an ad like this could give them the reason they were looking for to cut their list of candidates down to size.

But slowing down Cote is not the only possible outcome here.

There could also be a backlash against Mills for so much negative campaigning on her behalf. Just as Cote’s newcomer status can be used against him, Mills’ long record is both a strength and a weakness.


The way to go after a candidate like her is to say she’s been around so long that she’s part of the problem. Cote made the first negative ads in this race, selectively criticizing Mills’ records on clean water and guns.

So much money put into attacks on her behalf at this late stage looks a lot like “politics as usual,” something that Maine voters say they can’t stand (but often still reward).

The big cash drop could backfire, lifting Cote and hurting Mills. Or it could bring both of them down, turning off voters who might decide to stay home because they’re mad at everyone.

And that’s makes what Eves and Sweet did last week a little more interesting.

Neither of them has been considered a favorite on their own, but with their votes combined, one of them could be a factor in the race, especially if the leaders fade.

Will voters who say they don’t like big money in politics stop rewarding big spenders? Will contenders who work together do better than ones who fight? And how does any of this set the party up for the real election in November?


Who knows? This is new territory for everyone.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: gregkesich

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