Update July 15, 2020: State elections officials have confirmed that the winner of Maine's 2nd District Republican congressional race will be determined by ranked choice voting.
The Republican primary to determine who will face Democratic U.S. Congressman Jared Golden in November could be heading for a ranked-choice voting run-off, despite concessions from the two candidates who trailed in the three-way contest.
Just before midnight Tuesday, former state legislator Dale Crafts held a 15-point lead over Adrienne Bennett, the former press secretary for former Gov. Paul LePage, and over former state Sen. Eric Brakey, with roughly half of the state’s precincts reporting Tuesday night.
But Crafts was just shy of the 50 percent needed to win under ranked-choice voting. As the results were still being tallied on Tuesday, Crafts was optimistic about his chances in a runoff, pointing to recent polls showing he was the second choice for many voters.
“We really felt, if we just won tonight, even if it was a little bit, we'd win with ranked-choice voting,” Crafts said. “Now that we're way up on them, we feel like it's pretty much over.”
Brakey and Bennett have both conceded, but a runoff could still occur.
The three candidates are hoping to unseat Golden, a freshman who narrowly won the seat in 2018 by defeating incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin. Poliquin led that contest after the initial count, but lost during the ranked-choice runoff, an outcome that has since fueled Republican resentment of the newly-implemented voting system.
Should a runoff be needed, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said it will likely take several days to have the results.
The Maine Republican Party has vowed to repeal the voting system if it is able to gain enough seats in the Legislature. It is currently attempting to repeal a portion of the law that applies to presidential elections, which determines how Maine awards its four electoral votes to presidential candidates.
The system is seen as potentially damaging to President Donald Trump, who won Maine’s 2nd Congressional District by 10 points in 2016. Loyalty to Trump was also central to the Republican primary with all three candidates asserting they would fully support the president’s agenda in Congress.
Crafts, a devout Christian and businessman, had also hoped an endorsement by LePage would give him an edge against Brakey and Bennett.
LePage endorsed Brakey’s unsuccessful bid to unseat independent U.S. Angus King in 2018. Brakey, a conservative with a libertarian bent, was viewed as the early frontrunner in the current contest, drawing attacks from Bennett and Crafts. However, Brakey went on the attack during the closing days before Tuesday’s primary, calling both Crafts and Bennett “corporate socialists” for supporting a massive coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress earlier this year.
On Tuesday night, he thanked his supporters and offered Crafts his qualified support in an emotional message on Facebook live: "If Dale Crafts will commit to supporting and voting to end the war in Afghanistan after all these years....I'm sorry, I get very choked up about this. If you will commit to voting to end the war in Afghanistan, than you will have my support."
Brakey said the GOP primary had some twists and turns, including the injection of half a million dollars worth of negative attack ads from a dark money super PAC. "Sometimes the swamp wins," Brakey said. Earlier in the night he told reporters that he has not decided what he plans to do next.
Tuesday morning, Bennett issued a press release conceding the race. "I spoke with Dale this morning to congratulate him on becoming the Republican nominee for Congress," she said. "He has my full, 100 percent support."
All three candidates also targeted Democratic Gov. Janet Mills for her coronavirus response, attacks designed to piggyback on the conservative backlash to Mills’ business restrictions implemented to limit spread of COVID-19.
Crafts says if he can win the GOP nomination, he plans to focus his message on reviving the economy as it continues to feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The focus has to be on figuring out how to open up - carefully and safely - but try to get the economy going again. And that's quite challenging, as we see there are some hotspots around the country.”
None of the three Republican challengers were prolific fundraisers during the primary, raising a combined $1.3 million. Brakey brought in the most with more than $800,000, followed by Crafts with $329,000 and Bennett with $173,000.
Outside groups have spent $1.5 million attempting to influence the contest, a number that’s certain to rise once the primary winner is determined.
Golden has raised $2.6 million so far and has $2 million in available cash, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
Robbie Feinberg and Susan Sharon contributed to this report.
Updated 8:32 a.m. July 15, 2020
Originally published 11:37 p.m. July 14, 2020.