The first phase of the 2014 campaign is over

Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett speaks in November 2013 at Gov. Paul LePage re-election kickoff event. BDN photo by Mario Moretto.

Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett speaks in November 2013 at Gov. Paul LePage re-election kickoff event. BDN photo by Mario Moretto.

You would have been forgiven for not noticing, but with the deadlines for candidate filings in the June primary behind us, the first phase of the 2014 campaign for control of the Maine Legislature has ended.

That’s right — ended, not begun.

The beginning of any campaign cycle is not the primary, but the recruitment. In Maine, this is primarily done directly by the parties themselves, rather than by special interest groups (unlike nationally and in other states). This has been going on for many months already for the political parties and their staffs.

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They have been staring at maps of the state, trying to find the best candidates for each district in the House and Senate. In many cases, this is a simple matter of picking up the phone and checking to see if someone’s running again — whether that person is an incumbent, a former legislator looking to return, or a recent candidate trying again. In other cases, it takes a little more convincing. Sometimes many hours of work end in failure as the candidate you’d hoped for chooses not to run. Other times, a surprisingly excellent candidate appears on his or her own — occasionally even at the last possible moment.

Now, we can finally see on paper the fruition of these efforts. We know how many seats each party has managed to field candidates for, how many primaries there will be, which legislators are choosing to retire early, and which are seeking a promotion. This information not only represents the end of a phase for the parties and their staffs, but it can give us plenty of clues about the makeup of the political landscape not only in June, but November.

One of the most important clues is the number of candidates. Since individuals have to gather signatures to get on the ballot, it’s not a given that every district will have two candidates running. The Republican Party, then, rightly crowed about fielding candidates in every House and Senate district. The Democrats didn’t fare as well, only finding candidates in 145 of 151 House seats. If you add the three independents who already caucus with them, they still have three vacant seats — which they claim will be filled by yet-more sympathetic independents.

We shall see if that actually happens. It will be interesting whether this approach — let’s call it the Angus King strategy — works as well for the Democrats in 2014 as it did in 2012. At the end of the day, if you campaign like a Democrat, vote like a Democrat, and talk like a Democrat, it’s pretty obvious to voters who you are, regardless of the letter next to your name.

Apart from just filling seats, another sign of the state of play is the number of primaries. Though the parties themselves may not admit it, having primaries is actually a sign of health for them, not weakness. In the past several cycles, the number of primaries has tracked with the outcome in November: The party with more of them has prevailed. Primaries don’t create general election victories, but they are indicative of the level of enthusiasm and interest on the ground. This year, the number of primaries is just about dead even, meaning fewer Democrats are running for office than in 2012.

Republicans should be pleased not only with their recruiting success and the declining number of Democratic candidates, but with the national political climate. The president’s approval ratings continue to slide, now to a 41 percent approval rating. As we saw in 2010, the national climate definitely does have an effect as far down the ballot as state legislative races; you just have to make sure you take advantage of it.

Though things seem to be trending in the GOP’s direction, they certainly cannot take anything for granted. They have a long way to go to a majority in either chamber, and there’s a lot of work to be done between now and November. Barring a dramatic reversal, though, there’s good reason to think they can put control of the Legislature in doubt come this fall.

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Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.