November 7, 2012

Democrats makes gains in State House

BY STEVE MISTLER

BY STEVE MISTLER

State House Bureau

Maine Democrats made some progress Tuesday in their bid to retake one or both chambers of the State House. However, with many of the 186 races still undecided, it's unclear if the Democratic gains outpaced some pick-ups by Republicans.

Based on unofficial results and party sources, Democrats picked up five seats currently held by Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Democrats also secured a huge victory in the most expensive state Senate race in state history.

Republicans hold a 77-70 edge in the House (two members unenrolled, two seats vacant) and a 19-15 advantage in the Senate (one unenrolled).

Control of one chamber will allow Democrats to check LePage, who has hinted that additional reductions in state-funded health care for low-income Mainers and other government programs lead his policy priorities.

At stake is a Republican agenda led by Gov. Paul LePage that has been laden with change and, at times, controversy.

Democrats, who held a grip on state government for nearly 40 years before getting swept from power in 2010, are hoping to pick up one chamber of the Legislature, maybe two.

As of 11 p.m. Tuesday night, Democrats' biggest win was in Senate District 32, in Bangor and Hermon, where Democrat challenger Geoffrey Gratwick defeated Republican incumbent Nichi Farnham by an estimated 200 votes. The Democratic pickup was bolstered by two other victories over incumbent House Republicans in the Bangor area.

Outside groups spent close to $500,000 in District 32, making it the most expensive legislative race in state history during an election that topped $3.4 million in spending by parties and political action committees. The $3.4 million is also a record and more than doubled the $1.5 million record set in 2010.

Maine Republican Party Chairman David Sorensen said the District 32 race would go down as one of worst examples of politicking in Maine history.

Sorensen cited Democratic campaign mailers that claimed Farnham had violated Maine election law when she had in fact been cleared.

"It was a shameful example of political campaigning," Sorensen said. "It was desperate."

Ben Grant, the chairman for the Maine Democratic Party, said that the District 32 race and several others were pointing in the right direction. Grant said the party had hit its targets in picking up Republican held House seats in Gorham, Topsham and Bangor while protecting Democratic incumbents elsewhere.

"We're not ready to call it a victory yet," Grant said. "But we're trending in the right direction."

Sorensen said it was too early to tell much of anything.

"We've lost some seats but we're also picking up a lot of blue (Democratic) seats," he said. "There are a lot of surprises, but we're very confident."

Republicans have campaigned on finishing what they started in 2010. They enacted the largest tax cut in state history, although it's not entirely paid for. A contentious overhaul of the state's health insurance laws was passed, along with a charter school bill and initiatives to ease regulation.

Republicans' motto in recent weeks has been "promises made, promises kept." Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the Republican majority has run roughshod over the middle class and working Mainers.

The battle for the Legislature has been the most expensive in state history. Outside groups have spent over $3.4 million attempting to influence legislative races, shattering the record $1.5 million spent in 2010.

The spending underscores the high stakes.

Over $100,000 from outside groups has gone into eight state senate races, including three races receiving more than $200,000 each.

Much of the money has been funneled from insurance, health care, labor and other interest groups, which could have policy-making implications for the Legislature.

(Continued on page 2)

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