June 11, 2010

GOP turnout largest in 60 years

AUGUSTA -- When more than 130,000 Republicans voted Tuesday, party faithful secured their strongest showing for a gubernatorial primary in almost 60 years.

"This is the highest turnout in a Republican primary since 1952," said former Republican congressman turned pollster David Emery, of Tenants Harbor. "And I think 1952 was the highest turnout in history."

On Tuesday, the 130,928 Republican votes counted by Thursday evening fell about 5,000 short of 1952, when Burton Cross -- the eventual winner -- was nominated for governor with 40.4 percent of a three-way split.

This year's Republican nominee, Waterville Mayor Paul LePage, won 37.4 percent of the vote in a seven-way field Tuesday.

On the other side, Democratic turnout was 120,156, with all but five precincts reporting. This means Republicans had appproximately 48 percent turnout, while Democrats got 37 percent of their voters to the polls.

Exact party voting numbers, however, will not be known until municipalities across the state process Election Day enrollments, according to the secretary of state's office.

Pundits and party leaders credited Paul LePage's message and grassroots campaign for turning out voters, coupled with a well-funded campaign to overturn the Democratic-led tax reform package in Question 1.

LePage's volunteers also handed out brochures compelling people to veto tax reform. Five Republican other candidates ran television ads, drawing close attention to that race, while Maine Realtors paid for TV ads on tax reform.

Charlie Webster, the Republican Party chairman, said he told candidates to expect 90,000 Republican primary voters.

The 40,000 or so extra came in for two related reasons that had nothing to do with LePage, he said.

"People were angry about the Democrats, angry about this new tax (code)," he said. "Many people said to me, 'I'm going to go vote yes on (Question) One and I'm going to look at the candidates and decide who I like.'"

Webster and others also credited the winning candidate with drawing a crowd.

Republican political consultant Dan Billings likened LePage's strategy in the primary to Barack Obama's in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. While candidates typically focus on likely voters in a primary, they cast a wider net.

"What Barack Obama did was change the battlefield," said Billings, who also writes a monthly column for the Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel. "What Paul LePage did was very similar. He turned out a whole lot of people around the state who don't normally vote in primaries."

While the crowded Republican field did help draw voters, Democratic Campaign Manager Arden Manning said, he also identified Tea Party activism as the force behind the high Republican turnout, LePage's win, and the repeal of tax reform.

"Across the country, we've seen the Tea Party successfully nominate far right candidates," he said. "On Tuesday, we saw the same thing in Maine."

Mark Brewer, an associate professor of Political Science at University of Maine at Orono, also cited the surprisingly large Republican turnout on the Tea Party movement, whose cloaked composition he compared to the 19th-century secret organizations like the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Society.

Whenever there is a national sense of angst like today, said Brewer, it benefits the political party not in control.

Furthermore, the wider ideological range of the Republicans than Democrats who ran brought out more people passionate about who they supported and who they opposed, he said.

"I think a lot of Democrats looked at Pat McGowan, Steve Rowe, and Libby Mitchell and said 'You know what? I could live with any one of them,'" he said.

Amy Fried, a political science professor at University of Maine at Orono, called it an "enthusiasm gap." She questioned, however, how directly this was tied to anger at those in government.

"Republicans could have voted for any one of five individuals who had never held elected office and they did not," she said.

She also noted the passage of all four bond questions indicated that most voters were not fed up with government or indebtedness, as a Tea Party populism would imply.

"Maine has a populist streak," she said, "but I also think it has an extremely civil, thoughtful political culture where people don't like too much anger. They don't want people to get all wrought-up. They want people to be able to have thoughtful conversations and dialogue."

LePage's gruff personal style and strong brand of conservatism could win him enemies as well as friends as well, said Fried. "I think LePage will act to motivate Democrats and Republicans," she said.

Ethan Wilensky-Lanford -- 620-7016

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