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Primary recap: Republicans and Democrats select fall candidates but turnout was low . . . very low

Bangor's polling location at Cross Insurance Center was largely empty except for poll workers on the evening of June 11, 2024, during the statewide primary elections.
Kevin Miller
/
Maine Public
Bangor's polling location at Cross Insurance Center was largely empty except for poll workers on the evening of June 11, 2024, during the statewide primary elections.

The Republican and Democratic ballots are now set in this fall’s elections for Congress and the State House. But Tuesday’s primary elections saw extremely low voter participation across Maine.

Maine Public host Robbie Feinberg spoke with State House correspondent Kevin Miller about Tuesday’s primaries and what the outcomes might mean for November. Here is a transcript of their conversation.

Feinberg: Kevin, let’s start quickly by talking about that low turnout. Why was there such little interest?

Miller: I suspect the biggest reason is there were very few competitive primaries. And just to help illustrate that: there are 186 seats in the Maine Legislature but there were only 17 primaries – either Republican or Democratic – for those seats. In every other race, there’s already only one Republican and one Democrat or, in some cases, only one candidate running.

We also just had a presidential primary in March, which was also sparsely attended but not as bad as Tuesday. Now some towns did have decent turnout if they had a contentious debate over, say, the school budget or a local referendum. But what really struck me last night was when I stopped by Bangor’s only polling location between 6:30 and 7 p.m. – which is usually a very busy time – and the arena floor of the Cross Insurance Center was empty except for poll workers and a few voters.

Here is what Bangor city Clerk Lisa Goodwin told me.

"So it will probably a little 1,000 voters and then we had another 500 or so absentee," Goodwin said. "In a larger election, you're talking like in November, it would be 18,000 voters. So this is like nothing to us."

And Maine’s Secretary of State, Shenna Bellows, said she heard similar comments around the state.

Now, we did have some important races on Tuesday. Let’s start with one that has potentially big implications for this fall and that’s the Republican primary in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. What happened there?

The winner was Austin Theriault, who is a former NASCAR driver who is serving his first term in the Legislature. Over the past few months, it was clear that Theriault had some sizable advantages over his primary opponent, Mike Soboleski, who is also a state legislator. But Theriault had a lot more money. He had support from big-name Republicans, like Donald Trump. And that’s definitely what played out on Tuesday. Theriault won with two-thirds of the vote despite what I would say was a pretty aggressive, grassroots ground game by Mike Soboleski.

So what that means is that now we have a young, former NASCAR driver, Austin Theriault running against a young Marine – and that’s Jared Golden, the Democratic incumbent – in an unpredictable swing district with a lot of veterans and I'd say probably a good number of NASCAR fans.

Austin Theriault greets fans during driver introductions for the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup series auto race at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., Sept. 21, 2019. The NASCAR driver-turned-politician wants the opportunity to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in Maine. Theriault, who made his announcement on a radio show, said he’ll “come in with fire” to confront issues like inflation, illegal border crossings and dying small towns. The 29-year-old freshman state lawmaker from Fort Kent formally filed his paperwork Monday, Sept. 25, 2023.
Steve Helber
/
AP file
Austin Theriault greets fans during driver introductions for the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup series auto race at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., Sept. 21, 2019. The NASCAR driver-turned-politician wants the opportunity to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in Maine. Theriault, who made his announcement on a radio show, said he’ll “come in with fire” to confront issues like inflation, illegal border crossings and dying small towns. The 29-year-old freshman state lawmaker from Fort Kent formally filed his paperwork Monday, Sept. 25, 2023.

We also saw a Republican state lawmaker, John Andrews, who actually announced on Wednesday that he was going to resign his seat because of Austin Theriault won this race. Do you think this says anything about this state and the state of the Republican Party and a divide within the party?

I think it's important to note that John Andrews actually managed Mike Soboleski's campaign so he was deeply invested in this to begin with. As for whether this reveals a schism, I think the voting results show that, with two-thirds going to Theriault, there is sizable support for him in the party.

The two candidates did have a debate about who was the more conservative candidate. Mike Soboleski certainly made the argument that as a Marine Corps veteran himself, he would have a better chance of running against Golden. But I think we are seeing a trend in the Republican Party in Maine and nationally as well where younger candidates are entering the fray and they are attractive to voters. And I certainly heard that on the campaign trail as well.

And what do you think Theriault's win means for the general election?

Well, the 2nd District frequently draws a lot of national money and attention even in years when the candidate match-up is less interesting than this year. That is pretty much inevitable this time around. Austin Theriault had raised well over $1 million headed into the primary and he did that with the help of some big-name endorsements from Trump, House Speaker Mike Johnson and the campaign arm of the House Republicans in D.C. So what we would expect is they will be involved again.

What will be interesting to watch now is how Austin portrays himself in the general election and how much he talks about his support for President Trump. Trump won the district in 2016 and 2020. But those legal troubles could hurt him among the all-important independents and moderate Republicans in the 2nd.

And how about Congressman Golden? Does this change how he campaigns headed into the fall?

Jared Golden is a notoriously hard guy to predict. He kind of does his own thing. And that doesn’t always go over well with the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party because he has voted against Democratic spending packages and gun control proposals and then he has backed some initiatives that Republicans put forward.

But we should fully expect Theriault and Republicans are going to portray Rep. Golden as not a moderate but as a part of the liberal Democratic machine in D.C. led by Joe Biden. And Theriault actually hinted at this during his speech to supporters in Bangor Tuesday night.

"One of the first things that happens when you get elected to Congress is you make a vote for the Speaker of the House," Theriault said. "The question I have to ask us is do we want Jared Golden representing our district for another two years, electing a very liberal progressive Speaker of the House, knowing that the agenda that those people are going to push across are detrimental to the 2nd District? We cannot afford that."

Democratic Congressman Jared Golden thanked the people of the 2nd district and his campaign staff and volunteers Thursday morning.
Susan Sharon
/
Maine Public
Democratic Congressman Jared Golden thanked the people of the 2nd district and his campaign staff and volunteers Thursday morning.

This wasn’t the only congressional primary on the ballot. What happened in the 1st District?

This was very low-key race. But in the end, Ron Russell of Kennebunkport beat Andrew Piantidosi of Cape Elizabeth for the Republican nomination. Mr. Russell is retired from a career in the Army where he was part of the Airborne Rangers. He’s a Maine native with a lot of business experience in addition to his decades in the military. But I think the reality is that every Republican candidate has had a tough time making headway against Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree over the past decade and a half. And that's just because, unlike the 2nd District, the 1st District very clearly leans to the left and that doesn't seem to be changing much.

Ok so let’s talk a little about some of the State House races. The most interesting race, it seems, was Waterville, where abortion was a real key issue in the Democratic primary.

This was unusual because, ever since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade two years ago, Democrats in Maine and around the country have made abortion a key platform against Republicans. But this was a Democratic primary where Planned Parenthood’s political arm came out strongly against the sitting Democratic incumbent, which is Rep. Bruce White in this Waterville district. And that's because he voted against several high-profile abortion bills that Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups supported. And White lost to Cassie Julia, who said she got into the race because of Rep. White’s positions on abortion.

As you mentioned, there weren’t a lot of primaries for State House seats. What other races were you watching?

Democrats in Portland nominated a Somali immigrant (and former Portland school board member) Yusuf Yusuf to run for the House seat being vacated by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross. This was actually supposed to be a three-way primary but literally the day before the election, longtime state lawmaker Ben Chipman withdrew from the race. And Yusuf ended up beating another former lawmaker, Herb Adams, to win the nomination.

And then just a few miles away in Cape Elizabeth, Democrats chose a relative political newcomer, Michelle Boyer, over two former state lawmakers for a House seat there.

And lastly, circling back on Tuesday’s low turnout in Tuesday's election . . . Do you think that suggests anything about voter enthusiasm for the fall elections?

It's hard to say but probably not too much. Maine has consistently had among the nation's highest voter participation rates in presidential elections. But then again polls suggest that – with the exception of the die-hard Republicans who are all-in on Trump – there’s not a lot of enthusiasm for Biden or Trump.

So we'll see. It’s June, that’s November and between the fight for the White House and the constant battle for control of Congress, there’s going to be no escaping the political messaging from the parties over the next couple of months.