Predicting the outcomes of state house races
Predicting the outcomes of state house races in Maine is difficult. The districts are small, the issues are often hyper-local, and the personalities, work ethic and political acumen of the candidates can make a huge difference in the outcome of the race.
Despite the passage of the Maine Clean Elections Act, which has allowed for more decentralized campaigns, the state parties still have a big role in these elections. They create voter registration, identification and turnout operations in coordination with congressional and state-wide campaigns and they can also have a direct role in specific house races through independent expenditures.
The Maine Democratic Party has recently made a number of these independent expenditures supporting Democratic state house candidates throughout the state, and by examining the reports they have submitted to the state ethics commission we can get a good idea of where the party is focusing its resources and what seats they believe may be competitive. Here's a bit of what I've learned:
Playing some defense
Of the 151 house districts, the Democratic Party has made expenditures in 41 so far. 24 of those seats were won by Democrats last session and 17 were won by Republicans. A bit more focus on blue districts is expected based on the Democrats' 31-seat advantage and the gain of 16 seats they made in 2006. They have more seats to defend than the Republicans. In 2006, Democrats won these districts by an average of 6.41% of the vote.
A focus on open seats
Of those 41 races, 23 of them have no incumbent running. More than half the districts Democratic Party has targeted so far are open, and that number represents more than half of the 43 total open seats this year.
PolitickerME.com, a political blog that has been rating Maine house races, seems to be making similar assessments to those of the Democrats. They've ranked house races in six Maine counties so far, and of the eleven house races they rate as a tossup, the Democrats have targeted ten. The one race they haven't engaged in is District 8, where one-term Democratic incumbent Richard Cleary faces a three-way race. Perhaps the party thinks Cleary wouldn't benefit from a Democratic endorsement in deep-red Houlton, or maybe they didn't want to trigger matching funds for his opponents, who are both running publicly-funded campaigns.
The Democrats seem to believe there could be some big changes from 2006. In District 5, Democrat Jeremy Fischer won with 75% of the vote last election, but he isn't on the ballot this year, things look much closer, and the seat has made the Democrats' list. The party has made expeditures in eight similar races where a candidate won by more than 20 points last year, all of them Democratic seats.
10 Democratic incumbents have benefited from independent expenditures from their party so far: Benjamin Pratt in District 20, Robert Eaton in District 34, Bruce MacDonald in District 61, Terry Hayes in District 94, Lawrence Sirois in District 96, Herbert Adams in District 119, Bryan Kaenrath in District 124 (who won by more than 27 points in 2006), Peggy Pendleton in District 128 and Gary Connor in District 140.
The Democrats have made expenditures for candidates challenging 8 Republican incumbents, who they likely see as vulnerable: Bernard Ayotte in District 3, Robert Walker in District 44, Michael Vaughan in District 105, Susan Austin in District 109, John McDonough in District 127, Donald Marean in District 131, Bonnie Gould in District 146, and Sarah Lewin in District 148.
Races to watch
Scarborough may be a bellwether, with two incumbents who won by narrow margins, one Republican and one Democrat, representing the town's two districts, and both races seeing independent expenditures.
The spending for Herb Adams in District 119 appears to be an attempt to protect him from Green Independent challenger Daniel Jenkins. The Republican candidate has dissappeared.
Bangor has become solidly Democratic over the past few elections, but every house seat in the city is open this year and the Senate seat is very competitive. Three of the house races, 16, 17 and 18, have seen expenditures.
Those types of decisions are really quite strategic so there's not really I can even say generally," said Maine Democratic spokesperson Rebecca Pollard when asked about the expenditures.
Fine with me. I'd rather speculate wildly.