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A primary primer as parties prepare to pick politicians at polls in Maine

The polling station at the Town Hall in Kennebunk, Maine, is seen Tuesday, March 5, 2024.
Michael Dwyer
AP file
The polling station at the Town Hall in Kennebunk, Maine, is seen Tuesday, March 5, 2024.

Tuesday is primary election day in Maine (again) as voters head to the polls to select party nominees for Congress, the Legislature and local offices.

Not everyone will have competitive races on their ballots. And this is only Maine’s second election using a “semi-open primary” model that allows independents to participate without having to enroll in a party.

So what follows is a sort of primary primer on who’s on the ballot where, as well as some background and context for the two congressional primaries plus a handful of noteworthy legislative contests.

Wait ... another primary?

Yes, Maine just held a primary three months ago, but that was only for the presidential election. The June 11 primaries are for the other state and federal races on the November ballot.

Absentee ballot requests are one way to gauge potential voter engagement ahead of an election since the voting method is increasingly popular in Maine. By that measure, turnout might not be very robust in June 11 primary, however, because less than 33,000 voters had requested absentee ballots, according to the secretary of state’s office.

“Turnout is on track to be extraordinarily low,” Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said on Friday. “We encourage voters to remember that June 11 is Primary Day. Perhaps with the end of the school year, summer just starting and because we had a presidential primary in March, people have lost sight of the fact that there is a statewide primary coming on Tuesday.”

There are Republican contests next Tuesday in both of Maine’s congressional districts. The two Democratic incumbents, 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, don’t face opposition for their party nominations.

There are also 17 party primaries for State House seats: five in the Maine Senate and 12 in the Maine House. We’ll preview a few of those below. And Bellows pointed out that many towns have municipal elections and school budget referendums on the ballot on Tuesday.

1st Congressional District

Two Republicans are seeking the GOP nomination in Maine’s southern congressional district: Andrew Piantidosi and Ronald Russell.

Whoever wins will face off against Pingree, a progressive Democrat seeking a ninth term representing Maine’s left-leaning 1st District. And recent history suggests that will likely be a difficult climb for either man. That’s because Pingree received between 58% and 63% of the vote in each of her reelection campaigns since 2010, oftentimes with minimal campaigning.

But Russell and Piantidosi are hoping to change that narrative.

Russell is a Fort Fairfield native who attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and then served 30 years in the Army as an Airborne Ranger and in the special forces. After retiring, he spent years working in the defense contracting industry and as a small-business owner.

Russell and his wife moved back to Maine in 2021 and now live in Kennebunkport.

Piantidosi is a technology sector professional who was born in Connecticut, went to college in New Hampshire and now lives in Cape Elizabeth with his wife and two young children. He also works as a part-time teacher in South Portland.

Both candidates have emphasized the economy, energy issues, national security, the border, constitutional rights and concerns about the tone of political discourse in the nation. Neither has held elective office before. Both have said they support former President Donald Trump, which has become a litmus test for many Republican voters.

You can hear directly from the Republican primary contenders about their priorities and campaigns here from their June 4 appearances on Maine Calling.

2nd Congressional District

Maine’s sprawling 2nd District is often considered “at play” by the major parties. And this year is no different as national Republicans seek to topple Golden, a moderate Democrat who has won three terms in a district that also went for Trump in 2016 and 2020.

The Republican primary contest features two relatively new political faces with unique backgrounds: Austin Theriault and Mike Soboleski.

Theriault is a 30-year-old former NASCAR driver from Fort Kent who has run several racing-related businesses. He has emphasized that business experience as well as his endorsement by former President Trump throughout his campaign.

“There is so much craziness going around in our country,” Theriaut said in a recent interview. “If (there) is a time to be a voice of sanity and common sense, it’s going to be now because people are listening and they are wanting something different, they are wanting change.”

You can read and listen to Maine Public’s candidate profile of Theriault here.

Soboleski is a 67-year-old Philips resident with several decades of business experience but who also spent more than a decade working as an actor in New York City. Soboleski has argued that his conservative principles and Marine Corps service will help him compete against Golden (also a Marine) in the increasingly right-leaning district.

"Recruiting racecar drivers, yeah that's nice," he said in a recent interview. "But when you actually start getting into multiple businesses with multiple payrolls and multiple issues, that's a completely different animal."

You can read and listen to Maine Public’s candidate profile of Soboleski here.

Both men are wrapping up their first terms in the Maine House. Both are also hard-core Trump supporters and have heavily focused their campaigns on the economy, inflation, border security, government spending and the 2nd Amendment. Soboleski has accused his rival of not being conservative enough on issues like drug policy.

In addition to Trump’s endorsement, Theriault is backed by U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson and the National Republican Congressional Committee. That high-profile support has helped him rake in more than $1.2 million in campaign contributions compared to less than $120,000 for Soboleski. While larger piles of money never guarantee victory in politics, particularly in Maine, Theriault’s healthy flow of campaign cash has allowed him to air extensive TV and radio ads headed into June 11.

Looking ahead, the winner of the GOP primary could receive substantial financial help (both direct and indirect) from national Republican groups headed into the fall with control of the House once again at stake. Likewise, national Democrats and their allies would likely respond by supporting Golden.

The Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at University of Virginia Center for Politics — two highly respected congressional race prognosticators — currently rate Maine’s 2nd District contest as a “toss-up” during the general election.

Dems’ internal fight over ... abortion?

The vast majority of the 186 seats in the Maine Legislature are already two-person races because only one Republican and one Democrat are running. A handful of sitting lawmakers from both parties are unopposed in November.

Among the 17 contested primaries for House and Senate seats, one of the closest watched is the Democratic race for the District 65 House seat representing part of Waterville. And what makes this Democratic race so unusual is that abortion is a central issue.

Abortion rights groups such as Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund are opposing three-term incumbent Rep. Bruce White because he has voted against multiple bills dealing with abortion. Instead, the groups have endorsed and are campaigning to support White’s primary challenger, Cassie Julia, who serves on the local planning board.

White was among the modest number of Democrats who opposed a controversial bill last year that lifted restrictions on abortions later in a pregnancy by allowing the rare procedures whenever a doctor deems it to be medically necessary. White also opposed bills this year that enhanced legal protections for providers of abortion and transgender care and that would have put forward a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a woman’s right to access abortion in the state.

While Planned Parenthood’s PAC frequently gets involved in general election campaigns, the organization had never before endorsed a candidate in a Maine primary. The organization has since been touting Julia while calling White an “anti-abortion Democrat” whose votes have sought to “deny” reproductive rights.

“With federal protections for abortion gone, the people we choose to represent us in Augusta will decide the fate of reproductive health care and freedoms in Maine,” Lisa Margulies, vice president of public affairs at the PAC, said in a statement late last month.

In statements to the media, White has said he does not believe most of his constituents are single-issue voters and that there should be room for diverse opinions in a big-tent Democratic Party.

Other legislative primaries

The 17 legislative primaries are almost equally divided between the parties, with Republicans fighting for nominations in nine races and Democrats facing off against each other in eight.

On the Republican side, Rep. David Haggan of Hampden is challenging incumbent Sen. Peter Lyford of Eddington for the GOP nomination in Senate District 10. The Republican contest in Senate District 16 in Central Maine, meanwhile, is between Rep. Scott Cyrway of Albion, who previously served in the Senate, and former House Rep. Michael Perkins of Oakland.

Two Democratic primaries, meanwhile, are three-person contests.

In Portland’s House District 118, House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross is termed out and is running for the Senate. The three Democrats vying to replace her are Sen. Ben Chipman (who is termed out in the Senate), former Rep. Herb Adams and former Portland Board of Education member Yusuf Yusuf.

Three Democrats are also vying for the House District 123 seat in nearby Cape Elizabeth. Former state lawmakers Cynthia Dill and Kimberly Monaghan are both vying to return to the State House alongside Michelle Boyer, a member of the Cape Elizabeth Conservation Committee.

Democratic primary voters in both of those districts will be allowed to rank the candidates because the races involve three contenders. A ranked-choice runoff would then be used to choose a winner if no one captures more than 50% of the vote on the first tally.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and produced by news editor Andrew Catalina. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.