You may not have noticed with so many other events — a nomination fight, trade wars, the Red Sox playoff run — dominating headlines, but the battle for control of the Legislature is hitting peak intensity just as the foliage fades.

With both chambers of the Legislature in play for both parties, there’s already been plenty of spending, but so far it seems to have been focused more on online spending than on the traditional glossy mailers. If done correctly, online advertising can be hugely effective, especially in House campaigns; it’s not very pricey, and it’s easier to target specific voters more precisely. It’s especially effective in Maine because it’s harder to buy air time for (or against) legislative candidates given the size of the districts — that’s why you don’t see or hear many ads for local candidates on TV or radio. If you’ve ever run for the Legislature or helped raise money for a candidate, consider that a good thing, because over-the-air ads are also incredibly expensive.

Mailings and calls are still a good way to reach a wide swath of voters, especially in rural areas (which is almost the entire state), so you can expect those to increase in coming days. If you find yourself inundated with mailers for or against a local candidate, chances are you live in a district being targeted by one or both of the parties. We rarely see even generic statewide polling on legislative races, let alone head-to-head polls in individual districts, so it can be a bit of a challenge to decipher which seats are truly in play. Essentially, all we have to go on is what we hear from both parties and where the money is being spent.

The problem is, the political parties themselves often don’t have as good a grasp of the situation on the ground as one might think.

While they at least do polling, it’s difficult to poll these races, and the data isn’t nearly as accurate as it is in major races at the national and statewide levels. Parties often commit to spending big money on a district because their polls (and other data) indicate the race is close, then on Election Day, the candidate ends up getting trounced despite the polls and the funds spent to help them. On the flip side, candidates can manage to pull off an upset in a district that one or both parties didn’t see coming at all — or caught whiff of only when it was far too late.

Sometimes, it’s because the candidate seems stronger on paper than they end up being; either they’re not really as well liked as people assume, or they don’t end up doing the work they need to do to win.

It’s not uncommon to see this with longtime legislators (former or current) seeking to return to Augusta. Party leadership presumes they’d be good candidates based on their experience and name recognition, but they end up getting outworked by a younger, fresher opponent.

A good example of this was in 2014, when Republican newcomer Eric Brakey defeated Democrat John Cleveland, who’d just returned to Augusta for a term after serving in the Senate for almost a decade in the 1990s.

Other times, it’s just because someone steps up to run in a district that isn’t generally considered competitive, either because of the partisan makeup of the district or because there’s an established incumbent. Then, a qualified, hard-working candidate can pull off the upset, like when Republicans Corey Wilson and Matt Pouliot won Democratic seats in 2012, an otherwise bad year for the Republican Party.

For all of the unpredictability that we’ve seen at the national level in politics lately, in some ways that’s been par for the course at the local level in Maine for years. The smaller the district, the easier it is for a hard-working candidate to overcome a partisan disadvantage in their district, a massive fundraising gap or a bad national political environment for their own party.

Local elections are hardly immune from the national environment. A bad year for your party can sink an otherwise good legislative candidate, while a good one can propel a mediocre candidate to victory.

The job of the parties in such years is to mitigate the damage or take advantage of opportunities. This year, if the Maine Legislature remains closely divided, it’s probably because Republicans successfully did the former. If they pull that off, we could be in for a long night (or week) waiting for results.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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