Pulse Newsletter: In Maine Legislature, Advantage Democrats

Sep 18, 2020

With so much attention on the presidential race and the battle for Congress it’s easy to forget that control of the Maine Legislature is also at stake in November.

At the moment, Democrats appear to have a decent chance of keeping their majorities in the House and Senate.

One big reason is that in 21 legislative districts Democratic candidates are running unopposed this year. That includes two in the Maine Senate, which is historically the most flippable of the two legislative chambers.

The Republicans’ inability to put up candidates in 62 percent of this year’s 34 uncontested races is a marked contrast from 2010, when they failed to draft candidates in just four races.

As a percentage, Democrats’ possession of uncontested races is actually down from the 2018 election. That year, Democrats had 76 percent of the uncontested races.

But the problem for Republicans is their total number of uncontested races is trending in the wrong direction. In 2018, they failed or opted not to run a candidate in 13 contests. In 2016, there were no GOP candidates in 15 contests. This year it’s 21 contests.

There’s a lot of speculation about what’s causing this. Is a fundamental shift in party orthodoxy under President Donald Trump to blame? Is it a dwindling pool of electable candidates as the conservative coalition also undergoes some big changes and defections? Is it partisanship at the State House?

Credit Rebecca Conley / Maine Public file

It could be a combination of all of the above. It could also be that current legislative leaders, who traditionally do a lot of the candidate recruiting, are struggling to find good or willing candidates.

Either way, it couldn’t come at a worse time for Republicans. For about a decade the national GOP had the upper hand in battles for state legislatures because it realized how important state houses are in advancing conservative causes, especially when Congress is increasingly deadlocked.

Additionally, in 31 states, state legislatures redraw congressional districts after the release of the U.S Census every 10 years. A significant factor in Republicans’ ability to hold the U.S. House of Representatives for most of the current decade is because GOP-controlled legislatures were able to draw favorable, or gerrymandered, congressional districts.

Democrats appeared to catch up in 2018, pouring millions into legislative and gubernatorial races in Maine and across the country. The Democrats appear committed to a similar investment this year even though much energy and attention has been channeled to the presidential and congressional races.

That, along with the uncontested races, is good for Democrats. It’s also good for Gov. Janet Mills, who could enter the two final years of her first term with another Democratic majority in the Legislature.

The Maine Republican Party certainly isn’t abandoning its legislative efforts. Next week it’s holding a fundraiser for Republican candidates. Former Gov. Paul LePage is the main attraction. The event will be held at the Sunday River Brewing Co., which was in the news last spring when its owner Rick Savage temporarily had his operating licenses revoked because he flouted pandemic restrictions at his bar.

New Senate poll, who dis?

There have been several polls of the high-profile Maine U.S. Senate race and more are coming. So buckle up.

For political observers — and reporters — each poll is a melodrama. It’s not just because everyone is excited for the results. It’s actually the fight over whether the results are real, flawed or, for those with a proclivity to suspect nefarious plots, a conspiracy against their preferred candidate.

A poll this week by Quinnipiac University was a good case study in all of the above.

To be clear, the survey’s finding that Democratic candidate Sara Gideon has suddenly opened up a 12-point lead over Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins is an outright outlier.

No poll since July has shown Gideon or Collins with more than a single-digit lead and many of the surveys have shown a statistical dead heat between the two, which is another way of saying a candidate’s lead has fallen within a survey’s margin of error.

Even Quinnipiac’s previous survey in early August gave Gideon just a four-point lead over Collins.

It is certainly possible that Gideon has opened up a larger lead over Collins, but the double-digit advantage is perplexing. So was the poll’s finding that former Vice President Joe Biden has a nine-point lead over Trump in the 2nd Congressional District — a district Trump carried by 10 points in 2016. Biden’s statewide lead in the survey was 59-38.

Quinnipiac also didn’t poll the two independents in the Senate race, Lisa Savage and Max Linn. That led Savage to assert that the survey was “misinformation.”

Why were the independents excluded? It’s unclear. When we asked for an explanation, we received no response from Quinnipiac.

Some pollsters exclude independent candidates because they’re not considered viable. It’s not clear whether Quinnipiac came to a similar conclusion, and if it did, it certainly wasn’t the first pollster to do so in this race.

But Savage in particular has reason to beef with the exclusion. A poll commissioned by AARP and released last week had her drawing 6 percent support, which is pretty good for a cash-strapped candidate. Additionally, Savage had a strong showing in the first Senate debate, which took place within the same period that Quinnipiac was conducting its survey.

Finally, while Savage and Linn are considered long shots, this race could be determined by a ranked-choice voting runoff. That means the independents could have a significant effect on the race if neither Gideon or Collins can obtain an outright majority on election night.

Ad trends

The Wesleyan Media Project reported this week that roughly 40 percent of the ads airing in the 35 states with U.S. Senate races this year have been negative.

That might surprise Maine residents. And it should.

More than 83 percent of the $41.3 million in ads run by groups independent of the candidate campaigns have been negative, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The data don’t include ads by the candidate campaigns, but ads by the candidates have been eclipsed by those run by outside groups this cycle.

One more interesting nugget from the Center for Responsive Politics: Gideon is vastly outspending Collins in digital advertising on Facebook and Google.

According to the data, Gideon has spent about $3.4 million, including $2 million on Facebook and $1.4 million on Google. Collins has spent just under $1 million, with the bulk of it going to Facebook.

Disclosing opposition

Earlier this week, Maine Public ran a story that attempted to shed some light on how the U.S. Senate candidates are framing the most expensive race in state history.

This pair of file photos shows incumbent U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in 2019, left, and Maine House Speaker and Senate contender Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, right.
Credit Associated Press file

The story included comments from Colby College professor Anthony Corrado, one of the leading campaign finance experts in the country. We asked Corrado specifically to address Republican opposition to the 2012 Disclose Act, which would have lifted the veil on donors using nonprofits and other organizations to influence elections.

Collins voted against advancing the Disclose Act to a final vote, a decision that’s made her the target of criticism by Gideon and other groups. Collins says the Disclose Act was deeply flawed because it exempted “powerful special interests, including the NRA and labor unions.”

But Corrado notes that the bill would have treated unions, corporations, trade associations and nonprofits all the same; he says the reason Republicans often cite favorable union treatment as a reason for their opposition is because the bill set the donor disclosure threshold at $10,000, a level that would have meant many labor unions would end up not revealing donors because unions are reliant on worker union fees.

“There wasn’t a concern about not being transparent on $250 gifts,” he said. “The concern was that there are individuals putting millions of dollars into these groups and the public should have a right to know that.”

Corrado described the favorable treatment of unions talking point as a “strawman” argument seized by Republicans.

Republicans were not alone in opposing the Disclose Act. The American Civil Liberties Union also did.

The ACLU worried that “heavy-handed regulation will violate the anonymous speech rights of individuals and groups that associate with these independent expenditure groups, subjecting them to harassment and potentially discouraging valuable participation in the political process.”

Such an outcome would be particularly problematic for the ACLU, which represents clients or causes that some Americans find objectionable.

Corrado says that concern is partially why the 2012 Disclose Act was amended so that groups like the ACLU could shield donors who stipulated their gifts were strictly for non-political purposes.

The ACLU still opposed the bill.

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