Automatic for the People

Note: Please see edits below.

Maine Democrats are celebrating tonight, but I think they have a serious problem.

Let me back up.

State Sen. (Elect) Eloise Vitelli
State Sen. (Elect) Eloise Vitelli

Politics is fascinating.

Don’t puke just yet, at least not until you consider that observing politics offers the best of everything: intense drama, fierce competition and hilarious moments of human folly, all wrapped in a package of somber significance driven by human pathology.

It’s like a sporting event, a comedy show, and a night at the Met, all wrapped into a neat little package of 30-second installments.

Okay, so go ahead and puke now if you must. But for the rest of you consider this scenario.

It’s the middle of an all-too-short summer in Maine, where a state senator lands a sweet federal gig and must vacate his seat halfway through his two-year term.

He is a solid Democrat, a progressive, even…respected in his party (a former majority leader in the senate) and handily supported each election cycle by his constituents.

His district (State Senate District 19) is a reliable haven for his party: Mid Coast Maine, the home turf of Senator Angus King, Bowdoin College… not a hotbed of right-leaning conservatism, by any stretch.  Not really true, see edits below.

The Dems want to keep this seat. They still feel the sting of 2010 when they lost the Blaine House and both houses of the Legislature. Another gubernatorial campaign is already underway, and the Dems are absolutely committed to dumping Republican Paul LePage, who has repeatedly embarrassed his own party with ill-advised remarks and a stunning inability to control his temper and message.

Now, back to this sleepy senate district.

Two smart, savvy women lace up their gloves, representing their respective parties. A Green candidate also gets into the race.

Republican Paula Benoit
Republican Paula Benoit

More than $150,000 is spent on the campaigns during just a few weeks. It will likely top $200,000 when all the final campaign reports are turned over for public inspection next month.

It is, according to several political observers — including former State Senator Ethan Strimling — a record-breaking race for campaign funding in a state senate race.

The result?

A turnout of slightly more than 30 percent of the district’s registered voters, and a narrow victory for the Dems. Eloise Vitelli beats Republican Paula Benoit, who previously held the seat from 2006-2008.

Of the 8960 votes cast, the Democrats hold onto their seat by a margin of slightly more than 3  percent, 282 votes.

The Democrats are cheering and drinking bubbly tonight. They deserve the celebration. They worked hard.

But I think they will have a big hangover tomorrow morning.

How do you spend more than $100,000 and win by a little more than 3 percent when the Republican governor is trailing in the polls and you are running a campaign on your home turf?

Conventional wisdom says that the Maine GOP is in trouble and eating their own. Maybe.

But it seems pretty clear that Maine Dems have plenty to worry about between now and next November.

******

Edited to include Benoit’s prior election to the Dist. 19 seat in 2006.

Editor’s note: There is a peril to blog posting when you are a political junkie jacked up on Twitter, caffeine and cigarettes. Some glaring mistakes need to be corrected: 1.) Bowdoin College is not within Senate District 19. In fact, the town of Brunswick is not in Senate District 19, so you can also scratch my reference to Senator Angus King. I was consumed with the Brunswick Times Record’s endorsement of Benoit, thus thinking about Brunswick, instead of focusing on silly things like facts. Not smart.

District 19 may not be a Democratic stronghold, but it’s not a Tea Party demographic either. Like much of Maine, it is shifting and best described as purple instead of red or blue (Props to Gina Hamilton at the New Maine Times for that analysis). Republican Art Mayo who served in the seat from 2002 to 2006 switched parties and became a Democrat in 2004. Gina is much better at facts. Dan Demeritt (@DemerittDan) also pointed out that I did not include the tallies for the Green candidate in the race. Daniel Stromgren garnered 357 votes (4 percent), and Demeritt opines that of every four votes for a Green, one stays home, one goes GOP and two go Dem. So, you tell me: was Stromgren a factor?

In the end, I stand by my original analysis, despite my rush to publish and all of its associated pitfalls. Why?

1.) In 2012 (just last year) Goodall crushed his GOP opponent, Jeffrey Pierce (64-36 percent). Two years earlier, he trounced Republican David Kaler, 52-45 percent.

2.) Republican Gov. LePage is trailing in polls and getting widespread media attention for his gaffes, helping the Dems.

3.) The Dems had the seat and spent more than 100 grand to keep it. They got a 3 percent return for their money and a 30 percent turnout. What “message” are they sending to Gov. LePage? Do they really feel good about that? Really? They are not on easy street. Case closed.

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3 thoughts on “Automatic for the People

  1. Good analysis Randy. The view from my home in the north end of Bath is that the D’s far out-organized the opposition in GOTV. I don’t think Stromgren took a thing away from Vitelli. In a conversation I had with him, he was quite a bit to the right of Vitelli on a number of issues.

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  2. Randy. That’s a very interesting analysis. II would add these comments. First, the results of the 2012 race are not a very good comparison here, since that race involved a re-election of an incumbent leader in his party and this was an open seat. Second, the Republican candidate in this district had held the seat, recently, and was widely known throughout the district, and therefore started out with a distinct advantage. The Democrat was, by comparison, relatively unknown. So the two began this race at different starting points.

    Third, you may be underestimating the impact of the Green candidate in this race, who surely held down the numbers for the Democrat, which make the race seem closer than it actually was.

    In my view, when all of those things are taken together, LePage was a key factor in this race, which otherwise would have been expected to go to the Republican former incumbent.

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    1. Good points, Alan! As always, I enjoy your feedback. Call me naïve, but I am surprised that it was so close (Green or no green)
      Secondly, this race got a lot of attention, and I know why: it was a bellwether for the 2014 gubernatorial race.

      Other points:
      1.) The district seems moderate. Even Benoit’s win in 2006 was close, but later races clearly favored Dems.
      2.) The Democrats traditionally have a better ground game and GOTV strategy
      3.) The Blaine House did NOTHING to help the GOP candidate, she had to distance herself
      4.) The Democrats may have worked harder (I don’t know since I observed from a distance) but they also spent a ton of money on a campaign that would have left their senate majority intact, regardless.

      From where I sit, I don’t see a strong bellwether; and frankly I don’t think the Dems need one to take the Blaine House in 2014. I just think the Dems ought to be very careful about getting too confident. There was no mandate. No clear signal.

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