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What's next after lackluster voter turnout in Tuesday's primary

Election 2018 House Maine
Robert F. Bukaty
Ballots are prepared to be tabulated for Maine's Second Congressional District's House election Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Augusta, Maine. The election is the first congressional race in American history to be decided by the ranked-choice voting method that allows second choices.

In this week’s Pulse: lackluster voter participation in Tuesday's primaries, a big margin following big-time spending, ranked choice voting, and Wabanaki bill advances in Congress.

As far as Maine elections go, voter participation for Tuesday’s primaries was pretty lackluster.

With few high-profile races on the ballot other than the Republican contest for the 2nd Congressional District, the vast majority of voters stayed home.


Official figures won’t be known for a few weeks, but Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said some small towns reported zero votes cast. And even in Maine’s third-largest city, Lewiston, just 8% of registered Republicans voted, despite the 2nd District primary.

“We know that it was extraordinarily low across the state,” Bellows said.

But is there anything that can be gleaned – or teased – from Tuesday’s elections as Maine heads toward potentially fierce campaigns for governor, the 2nd District and control of the State House?

First off, the Republicans who turned out in Maine’s sprawling 2nd District obviously preferred the known quantity that is former Congressman Bruce Poliquin over newcomer Liz Caruso. Poliquin ended up with a comfortable 60% of the vote despite speculation (and a last-second plug by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson) that Caruso’s low-budget campaign was surging.

Bruce Poliquin, Jared Golden
Robert F. Bukaty
FILE - This panel of file photos show U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin in 2017, left, and state Rep. Jared Golden in 2018, right, in Maine. Poliquin said on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, a recount in his failed re-election bid is needed so every vote is counted by hand under the state's new election system. He formally requested a recount the previous day. Poliquin won the first-round ballot by nearly 2,000 votes, but lost to Golden by about 3,500 votes after votes were reassigned in an additional round under Maine's ranked-choice voting system, following the elimination of the third- and fourth-place candidates.

The district is once again on the national parties’ respective radar screens, so expect a deluge of spending as Poliquin tries to retake his old seat from two-term Democratic incumbent Rep. Jared Golden. Sparking further flashbacks to 2018, independent Tiffany Bond has qualified for the ballot again this November, setting up the potential for another ranked-choice runoff.

One of the other races that was being closely watched by Maine politicos wasn’t a primary, but was an unusually expensive head-to-head contest between the political parties.

Whether Democratic Rep. Nicole Grohoski’s victory over Republican Brian Langley in Hancock County means anything for November on a statewide level depends, not surprisingly, on which party you ask.

“The Senate District 7 race was a big deal for us,” Drew Gattine, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said in an interview. “We were really excited about the results. I think it says a lot about the current atmosphere and it tells us a lot about where we are headed going into November.”

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, had a different take on the outcome.

"Democrats spent nearly $250,000 – nine times more than Republicans, according to the Bangor Daily News – to hang on to a Democrat seat for someone who will never vote on a single bill in Augusta,” Savage said in a statement. “That's pretty consistent with their fiscal policies. Spend a lot for nothing in return.”

Big margin following big-time spending

Grohoski captured roughly 64% of the vote compared with 35% for Langley and just 1% for Green Independent Benjamin Meiklejohn. The margin of Grohoski’s victory over Langley – a well-known business owner who represented the region for 10 years at the State House – certainly caught many people by surprise.

“That’s pretty big margin in a district (Langley) held not too long ago,” University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer told the Portland Press Herald. “Everybody thought that was going to be a close race, myself included.”

The Democratic party and their allies in outside groups shelled out more than $235,000 to elect Grohoski compared to about $28,000 spent by Republican groups in support of Langley, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Maine Ethics Commission.

Republicans spent months on social media attacking Grohoski – who is wrapping up her second term representing Ellsworth and Trenton in the Maine House – over her co-sponsorship of a bill that proposed a carbon tax on fuel distributors in Maine. She ultimately joined others on her committee in opposing the bill but was still labeled as “Gas Tax Grohoski” by the Maine GOP.

Gattine accused his Republican counterparts of smear tactics and of “tagging her with these ugly and inaccurate nicknames.” And he expects to see more of it headed into the November elections.

“I think that we learned a lot in [Senate District 7] about what works for us,” Gattine said. “And I think we learned what we are going see from them. And frankly, so far, it doesn’t seem to be working.”

Sen. Jeff Timberlake, who heads the Republican caucus in the Maine Senate, said the GOP knew it was “going to be tough sledding” heading into the special election because independents don’t typically vote during primary elections.

Republicans were upset that the Secretary of State’s office scheduled the special election for June 14 – on primary election day – even though the seat has been vacant since January. And while any registered voter could cast a ballot in the special election, both candidates said they were hearing from independents who didn’t realize they could participate.

“In that seat we needed independents to turn out, and we all see the outcome of very low turnout all the way around on both sides,” Timberlake said on Thursday afternoon. “I don’t think it has any bearing at all (on November) at this time . . . Our goal is to work towards November. That’s what we built our team around.”

And Senate District 7 voters will get another chance in November, when Grohoski and Langley compete against each other again for the same seat (although with slightly different boundaries because of redistricting.)

He won a ranked-choice election – but still hates it

Timberlake was in Augusta on Thursday to find out who would be the Republican nominee this November in another Maine Senate seat.

There were three Republicans on the ballot on Tuesday in Senate District 16 in the Waterville area: Rep. Michael Perkins, Kevin Kitchin and Mark Andre. None of the three received more than 50% of the vote after the first tally, so the race went to a ranked-choice runoff.

In the end, Perkins held onto his lead and ended up beating Kitchen 52% to 48% after the second-choice preferences of Andre’s supporters were crunched by the specialized software. So he’ll face off against Democrat David LaFountain in the fall.

A majority of Maine voters have endorsed the ranked-choice process twice at the ballot box — first during the original referendum in 2016 and then again two years later when they rejected Republicans’ attempts to block the process.

Many Republicans remain opposed to it, including Perkins, despite Thursday’s outcome.

"They did a good job. They did a phenomenal job, very transparent and all very well done,” Perkins said of local and state elections staff in a brief interview with Maine Public. “But I don't like ranked-choice voting. I think it's wrong. I’ll say it today and I’m not going to sugarcoat it: it’s wrong. When you watch a basketball game, the team with the most points wins the game. This is garbage, but that’s the way it is.”

Ranked-choice confusion

Just as a quick refresher on the complicated RCV rules in Maine:

Republicans in the primary for Senate District 16 were able to rank the three candidates because it was a primary. That won’t be the case in November in any State House race or the gubernatorial contest, even if they have three or more candidates. That’s because Maine’s Constitution only allows the ranked-choice process in party primaries for state offices.

But, as noted earlier, voters in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District will get to rank the three candidates (Golden, Poliquin and Bond) in November because RCV is allowed during general elections in Maine for federal offices. As of right now, that’s the only ranked-choice election this fall for a state office.

A majority of Maine voters have endorsed the ranked-choice process twice at the ballot box — first during the original referendum in 2016 and then again two years later when they rejected the Legislature’s attempt to delay and potentially shelve the process.

Wabanaki bill advances in Congress

And speaking of Golden . . . a bill sponsored by the Democrat that would affect the four Wabanaki tribes in Maine took a step forward this week.

The House Natural Resources Committee endorsed, along bipartisan lines, the bill that would allow the tribes in Maine to benefit from future federal laws that apply to other federally recognized tribes. Tribal leaders in Maine sought the change because, right now, the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act puts them on a different footing than other tribal nations across the country.

A yearslong effort to overhaul that 1980 agreement once again failed in the Maine Legislature this year in the face of opposition from Gov. Janet Mills. But the bill introduced by Golden and co-sponsored by 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree was strongly supported by leaders of the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Mi’kmaq Nation in Aroostook County.

The bill’s prospects remain unclear, however. A committee endorsement could help the bill get a vote on the floor of the House, but that’s not a guarantee. And there is no timeline for any action yet.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week political correspondent Kevin Miller and produced by digital reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.