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Hancock County special election draws statewide attention as a potential bellwether for November

Campaign signs for a special election in Hancock County.
Kevin Miller
Maine Public
Campaign signs for a special election in Hancock County.

Maine voters won’t choose their representatives in the Legislature for another five months. But a special election being held in Hancock County next week is drawing a lot of attention, and money, because some view it as a potential bellwether for the fall.

That was the clear message last month when Senate President Troy Jackson, addressing party faithful during the Democratic state convention in Bangor last month, called the Senate District 7 race in Hancock County "ground zero for us," Maine Senate Democrats.

The seat has been vacant since January, when Democratic Sen. Louis Luchini stepped down to take a job in the U.S. Small Business Administration. So many are looking at this race as the first skirmish in this fall's battle to control the Maine Senate.

"We have to have that race and I would implore you to do everything that you can to help us in the next four weeks,” Jackson, D-Allagash, told the crowd. “I mean, if we win that race, it demoralizes them and sets the tone for November."

The "them" that Jackson hopes to crush are his Republican counterparts, who are working hard to elect Brian Langley to fill the vacant Senate District 7 seat. In the four weeks since, the Maine Democratic State Committee and its campaign allies have spent more than $230,000 to boost the party’s nominee, Rep. Nicole Grohosky of Ellsworth, or to oppose Langley.

Factoring in the tens of thousands more spent by the two candidates and Republican organizations and expenditures for the District 7 special election are well above $300,000. A third candidate, Green Independent Benjamin Meicklejohn, is also on the ballot but has run a comparatively low-profile and low-budget campaign.

But here's the thing about Tuesday's election: whoever wins probably won’t cast a single vote before November, because the Legislature has adjourned for the year. And regardless of Tuesday's result, Grohoski and Langley are already on the November ballot, although the voter pool will shift slightly due to redistricting.

For Langley, a restaurant owner and educator who previously served 10 years in the Legislature, casting votes is just one aspect of the job.

"I termed out in 2018. A lot of people knew I was a senator and a lot of people still call me when they need help,” Langley said this week. “And mostly it is accessing your government."

Likewise, Grohoski says constituent service is key to her work in Augusta, as is working across party lines — something she insists happens more often than people realize — on such important issues as energy, the environment and health care.

"I feel like we've made a lot of really great progress in the past four years that I've served,” Grohoski said during a recent break from door-knocking around Bar Harbor. “I've grown up in Ellsworth, I love Hancock County and I thought this would be a great opportunity to give back to a larger community and region that I care about."

In some ways, Senate District 7 is a microcosm of Maine's broader political landscape.

On one end of the spectrum is Bar Harbor, with its multimillion-dollar homes and businesses packed with summer visitors. Seventy-five percent of Bar Harbor voters supported Joe Biden in 2020. But the political and economic realities change when you venture into interior areas of the district, to places like Amherst or Mariaville that went solidly for Donald Trump, twice.

The region has sent both Democrats and Republicans to Augusta in recent years. In fact, Grohoski is both a former constituent of Langley’s, and she now represents him in Augusta.

Langley said his phone began lighting up as soon as Luchini announced his departure. He says his experiences as a business owner during the pandemic shaped his decision to run. And he says one issue is at the top of voters' minds.

"One-hundred percent of the time when I am out talking to people, it's inflation,” Langley said. “People are just disheartened and worried about the coming winter and whether they are going to be able to afford it — what is the price of oil going to do?"

According to the nationwide polls and pundits, the dragged-out pandemic, inflation and record energy prices are all wearing on voters. And that could spell trouble for Democrats who hold the power seats in Washington and Augusta.

In the District 7 race, the Republican Party and its national partners have been trying to tap into voter angst over gas and heating oil prices by targeting Grohoski over a bill she co-sponsored that proposed a carbon tax on fuel distributors. She ultimately voted to kill the bill, but Republicans have dubbed her "Gas Tax Grohoski" nonetheless.

Grohoski called the GOP attacks disingenuous and accused Republicans of ignoring the bipartisan work, by her and others, to lower taxes and energy costs in recent years. As a member of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, Grohoski has been heavily involved in debates over utility regulation in recent years.

"I have no reason to be ashamed for signing onto any bill,” she said. “I think it's important that every topic get its due discussion and then we can decide based on the information that we are presented with if it's the right thing for Maine people or not."

A cartographer and geographic information systems specialist, Grohoski has represented Ellsworth and Trenton in the Maine House since 2018. She says she too is hearing from constituents about inflation and energy prices. But she added it's more often expressed with concern and empathy for fellow citizens. Other perennial issues she’s hearing about from voters include health care, education and property taxes.

"But certainly something I have felt a shift in since I first ran for office is the lack of affordable housing,” she said. “And that is really affecting our economy, our small businesses' ability to attract and retain the workers that they need."

Neither Grohoski nor Langley said they are paying much attention to the implications of Tuesday's election on the fall. But both are working to turn out voters, including independents who can cast ballots in the special election even though it is being held on a primary day.

And Grohoski campaign volunteer George Borowsky of Surry, speaking in downtown Ellsworth this week, described Tuesday is the "on ramp to the next election."

"So whoever wins it has momentum and has extra name recognition and has the incumbency advantage at that point,” Borowsky said.