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Democrats retained control of both chambers of the Maine State House. But how? And what’s next?

The State House in Augusta on Wednesday.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
Maine Public
The State House in Augusta on Wednesday.

Here in Maine, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills won the race for governor on Tuesday night. Democrats appear to be close to taking both congressional seats. And they retained their control of both the Maine House and Senate. It all comes after a brutal campaign that saw national parties and outside groups spend record amounts of money on local races.

Maine Public State House correspondent Kevin Miller spoke with All Things Considered host Robbie Feinberg on Wednesday afternoon to walk through what happened, and what it means for the state.

Feinberg: I know that we are still waiting for election results from some towns. Where do things stand right now in these State House races?

Miller: So it looks like Democrats have held their own in the Maine House and the Senate and may even pick up a few seats in both chambers.

The Associated Press has not officially called a lot of these races. But it seems fairly clear that Democrats will continue to hold at least 22 and perhaps 23 of 35 seats in the Senate. They headed into Election Day with 22 seats so, at the very least, they are holding steady.

And in the much larger House of Representatives, Democrats are saying they won 82 seats, while Republicans will have 67. And then there are two independents who I'd say lean progressive — or at least toward the Democrats — who also won reelection. So that gives Democrats a slightly larger majority than they had during the current legislative session.

There was a lot of talk here in Maine and nationally about this potentially being a red wave election. But Democrats clearly had a pretty big night, especially here in Maine. What do you think happened?

Well, I think the results up and down the ticket certainly suggest that Democrats did a great job of turning out their voter base. Democrats were really emphasizing issues like abortion on a national stage. And we certainly saw some of that in local races as well. But then you had local issues that were on the ballot. And especially when you get to these smaller House races, they're very localized races.

And it often comes down to candidates: whether they're well known in their district, how hard they work, and whether they can get their message out. And this case, Democrats definitely had a lot of money flowing into the state from outside groups to help on that messaging front.

But I spoke with Shawn Smith, who ran the House Democratic campaign committee this afternoon. And this is what he had to say about the outcome:

'Unlike bigger races, House candidates can knock on every door and actually talk to voters and listen to their concerns. And I think that's what Democrats did. They talk to folks in their communities, they listen to their concerns about the cost of living grocery prices, gas prices, women's rights when it comes to private medical decisions.'

One of the things I think is important to add here for context is that Democrats have been adding voters in Maine for several years now. While for a long time independents or unenrolled voters were the largest voting bloc in Maine, now Democrats are. And part of that has to do with population growth in the left-leaning southern and coastal counties and population loss in more rural areas.

So let's look at a few of these races in particular, starting with one up in Aroostook. County that got a lot of attention.

Yes, so the highest profile and the most expensive race, by far, was up in a Senate district that stretches across the top of northern Maine to Fort Fairfield. Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash, who is a Democrat, is leading Republican Rep. Sue Bernard of Caribou by about 52% to 48%, with most of the results in.

Outside groups funneled about $1 million into this race, and that's absolutely unheard of for legislative races in Maine. Much of that came from Democrats who were trying to help Jackson defend his seat in a district that is increasingly conservative. And I don't think it hurt when he pointed out that he's the first Senate president from Aroostook County in about 60 years. And as such, he wields a considerable amount of power in not only setting the agenda in Augusta, but also elevating issues that are important to northern Maine residents.

Are there any other state House races that you were paying attention to?

Democrats were also able to defend a seat in Waldo County that is held by Sen. Chip Curry of Belfast. And they were able to flip one Central Maine seat in the Waterville-Oakland area from Republican to Democrat. But Republicans won by huge margins in a lot of other races in rural Maine. And it looks like they were able to keep another open seat in the Auburn area in Republican hands.

So looking ahead . . . Democrats already control the governor's mansion and both chambers of the State House. So that hasn't changed. But what do these Democratic legislative victories mean for Gov. Mills and Democrats moving forward?

Well, it likely means more of the same when it comes to issues that are important to Democrats — whether that's addressing climate change or expanding access to health care or other issues.

Abortion was also a top issue. And there may be some efforts to further strengthen or expand Maine’s protections for abortion. But the reality is that Republicans still hold enough seats to block some legislation, such as a proposal that would add abortion protections to the Maine Constitution. That would take a two-thirds vote in both chambers and Democrats don't have that right now — and they still won't have that next year.

But I think it's important to note here that even though Democrats control the legislature and the governor's office, there have been a lot of instances where Gov. Mills vetoed bills that were important to Democrats or effectively killed them by threatening to veto them. So she's been a moderate check on progressives in the Legislature on some issues. And as a result, just because Democrats have control of the State House, that doesn't necessarily mean we're going to see a huge wave of progressive initiatives coming out of Augusta.