Nearly one in five members of the next Maine Legislature will be sworn into office after winning election unopposed in November.

In all, 34 seats, including two in the Senate, will go to candidates, most of them Democrats, without opponents.

It’s the largest give-away of power from one major party to the other in more than 20 years and is a high-water mark for a trend that started in the 2016 election. All 186 seats in the Legislature are up for reelection every two years.

Of those 34 free seats, 24, including two in the 35-seat Senate, will go to Democrats.

The uncontested seat count puts Democrats in a good position to control the Legislature again in 2020. The party currently holds broad majorities in both chambers, with 21 of the 35 Senate seats and 89 of the 151 seats in the House.

And while both parties have seen record enrollment numbers, Democrats also are outpacing Republicans by 91,000 voters and earlier this year surpassed unenrolled voters, those not enrolled in either party, as the dominant voting bloc for the first time in 30 years.

Michael Franz, a government professor at Bowdoin College who also studies political campaigns and elections, said the increasing number of uncontested seats in the Legislature is likely the result of numerous factors.

Franz said the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly made candidate recruitment difficult, but notes that the trend line for uncontested seats in Maine started well before the coronavirus hit.

“Polarization might be a disincentive for some interested citizens to run for office,” Franz said. “When you declare publicly that you are a Democrat or a Republican, you are also creating the chance that fellow citizens make value judgments about you. This is more true today than in decades past given the affective nature of party polarization today. The anger people feel to the other party is very high in lots of places, and this could make it just not worth the effort of running for office.”

Unopposed House candidates

In 2018, there were 17 uncontested races with 13 going to Democrats, and in 2016 there were 20 uncontested races with 15 going to Democrats.

Before 2016 there were far fewer uncontested races and free seats were split more evenly between the two dominant parties.

In 2010, there were just seven uncontested races with four seats going to Democrats and three to Republicans, in 2012 there were six uncontested races with each side picking up three free seats and in 2014 there were 16 uncontested races with seven seats going to Democrats and nine to Republicans.

This year will be the most lopsided distribution of seats between the parties, suggesting Republicans had a more difficult time finding people who were willing to run.

Franz said some of the disinterest also might stem from a lingering fatigue felt by moderate Republicans who can’t embrace more conservative firebrand leaders like former Republican Gov. Paul LePage and President Trump.

And while Maine’s Clean Elections Act allows for publicly financed campaigns, and the funding available for candidates has been gradually increased, it may still not be enough to attract a full slate of candidates, Franz said.

While Democrats failed to field candidates in 10 House races in 2020, Republican recruitment came up short in 22 contests, giving Democrats a 12-seat advantage in the 151-seat body going into the election.

The advantage was not lost on outgoing House Majority Leader Matt Moonen, D-Portland, who recently commented about the uncontested races. “It’s like Republicans aren’t even trying,” he tweeted.

Caucus leaders like Moonen, and his Republican counterpart House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, are typically the ones to head up candidate recruitment efforts.

“Recruiting was particularly challenging this year due to coronavirus, increased negativity in politics and the flood of outside money coming to Maine to influence our elections,” Dillingham said. “When the pandemic hit, we lost a number of promising, self-employed candidates. They ultimately could not make a commitment because of unknowns associated with COVID-19 and how it would affect their businesses.”

State Legislative races around the country also have become increasingly less competitive and according to a 2016 report in Governing Magazine 30 to 40 percent of state legislative races are won by a candidate with no opponent.

Ken Fredette, the former Republican minority leader in the Maine House, said recruiting candidates has become increasingly difficult because fewer and fewer people are interested in running for public office in a sharply partisan climate.

Fredette said recruitment problems are compounded when a caucus finds itself even deeper in the minority and prospective candidates doubt whether they will be able to have a significant impact on policy objectives.

“When you are in a super minority, you are pretty darn limited in the great scheme of things of what you can get done,” Fredette said. Even so, he said fielding candidates in as many races as possible is important because it ties up time and resources for the opposition that may otherwise be used to help other candidates in tighter contests.

Unopposed candidates become a force multiplier when they don’t have to campaign vigorously for their own seat, they can turn their energy toward helping their party colleagues, Fredette said.

Fredette said he was not surprised Republicans had difficulty fielding candidates, but he was surprised by the large number of seats left uncontested, especially seats where Republicans have been competitive or won in the past.

One of those seats is in Scarborough’s House District 28. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Christopher Caiazzo is seeking his second term unopposed there, but it’s a seat that was previously held for four consecutive terms by Republican Heather Sirocki.

In 2016, Sirocki defended the seat, beating Caiazzo by 302 votes.

Fredette said the robust recruitment of candidates for State House seats is also important to parties as they work to maintain their respective benches and develop experience for potential future caucus leaders.

The state Legislature is also an important training ground for developing a candidate pool for U.S. Congressional races or the governor’s office.

For example, both of the state’s U.S. House seats are held by former state lawmakers. The U.S. Senate race this year in Maine also features a Democratic challenger who is the outgoing speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.

Fredette said the rise of social media as a platform for instant criticism is also a factor in why some choose not to run.

“The divisiveness in politics today is making it increasingly more difficult to attract more non-traditional type candidates, these folks who run or own their own business, and the politics can often spill over into their livelihood,” Fredette said.

“Add on to that social media and if someone has a disagreement with somebody, in a matter of seconds it’s aired out there without any due process, it’s all out there for the public to see and hear. I think all of that combines to people not wanting to step up and run for the Legislature.”

Franz said amplifying the disinterest in running for the Legislature is the simple fact that being a state lawmaker in Maine is not as glamorous as some may think.

Maine’s lawmakers are paid a base salary of just over $10,000 a year for serving in what is meant to be a part-time, citizens’ legislature. And while they also receive a $32-a-day per diem meal allowance and up to $38 a day for lodging or travel costs while in session the pay alone often limits the candidate pool to the self-employed, retirees or those who are financially independent.

“We have low pay, and not much staffing help, ” Franz said. “Why do the work to run for office, given all of the above, if it has direct conflicts with someone’s job and personal life?”

There are many drawbacks to not having competitive races.

Fredette said despite a person’s political leanings, not having vigorous policy debates, disagreements, conflicts and ultimately some compromises results in a weaker government that’s less representative to all the people of the state.

Competition on the campaign trail also helps inform policy perspectives and provides a system of checks and balances on power, he said.

“Here in Maine, I think we forget the importance of these legislative races and how much can be done and how important that work in the Legislature can be,” Fredette said.

Franz, the government professor, also warns that uncontested races can lead to an unhealthy complacency. He said assessing the long-term impact uncontested races have on policy would be difficult.

“But without competition in a general election, incumbents can sometimes get too cozy and not always keep their eye on their constituents’ interests,” Franz said. “More generally, competitive races are better, as they help align candidate goals and priorities with the goals and priorities of the citizens in the district. So, in general, this trend in uncontested races is not ideal.”

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