After dragging into a December runoff, Lewiston’s closely watched mayoral race ends Tuesday.
In a race that’s made national news, progressive activist Ben Chin has raised 15 times more money than conservative incumbent Mayor Robert Macdonald and outpolled him on Election Day, but not by enough to avoid the runoff.
A national and state spotlight has come after for the mayor’s call for an online registry of welfare recipients and when signs against Chin likening the Chinese-American candidate to Ho Chi Minh were hung in the city.
This situation may look grim for Macdonald. The two-term mayor has arguably been outworked by Chin, as well as outspent, and could well lose his race or a third and final term.
But history shows he has a path to victory, despite a high number of absentee ballot requests that likely foreshadows reasonably strong voter turnout.
Although Chin has outraised Macdonald, it’s not clear whether money means votes.
Chin has run a professional mayoral campaign: He raised nearly $88,000 as of Nov. 24, according to city records, which was 15 times more than Macdonald’s $5,800.
Some prominent Maine Republicans emerged to boost the mayor in November — including U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of the 2nd District, who gave him $500 — but Macdonald later told the Sun Journal he isn’t accepting more because he has “plenty to do everything I want to do.”
He hasn’t done much: Between Election Day and Nov. 20, he spent less than $2,500, all on print and radio ads, while Chin spent more than $22,000 — $12,000 of which went to the Maine People’s Alliance, the progressive group that employs him and runs his campaign.
Still, money doesn’t always translate to electoral victory. University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer has said a Chin win would be “ a massive upset,” despite Chin’s positive, issues-driven campaign offering a blueprint of “a way forward” for Democrats in Maine.
If Macdonald has ground to make up on Chin from Election Day, he could do it.
Conventional wisdom says Chin comes into the runoff with a head start: On Election Day, he won 44 percent of votes to Macdonald’s 37 percent, carrying the city’s downtown and the area around Bates College, his alma mater, despite losing in more suburban neighborhoods.
Chin took heart in that result at his party on election night, saying, “I’d put this room up against any other room in the city right now” in a reference to his supporters.
Macdonald, however, was one of three Republicans in the race — Stephen Morgan and Luke Jensen were the others — and combined, they got 55 percent of votes.
Lewiston is a strange political city: It’s a traditional Democratic stronghold with 6,000 more Democrats than Republicans, but it doesn’t always vote Democratic, as evidenced by Macdonald’s two wins and the city going twice for Gov. Paul LePage.
On election night, Macdonald said he has support from many older, more conservative Democrats who say their party has “screwed us.” The electoral math may bear that out.
This is why likely high turnout and Democrats’ edge on absentee ballot requests may not help Chin as much as one may think.
The total number of absentee ballots requested in Lewiston indicates high interest: Nearly 3,000 people — nearly 12 percent of the city’s voter base — got them as of Thursday night, according to City Clerk Kathy Montejo.
It’s nearly 800 more than the November election, and Montejo said it’s nearly 2,100 more than in the last runoff election in 2011, when Macdonald narrowly beat an opponent who actually died on the Friday before the election.
In November, a third of Lewiston voters cast ballots in an election that saw 23 percent of voters turn out across Maine. This runoff may come close to the general election share and will probably eclipse that of the 2011 runoff, which drew 21 percent of voters.
Democrats have made 64 percent of requests for this runoff, but that’s not as a strong of a share as it looks for Chin. They made 68 percent of requests for the general election, and as we know, they may not all vote like Democrats.
OK, enough with numbers. What is the path to victory for each candidate?
Chin: If he wins, it’ll be because of an activist-fueled ground game that draws younger and more urban voters to the polls, buoyed by unprecedented spending during a political campaign with a playbook ripped straight from federal and state elections.
For example, Chin held a rally attended by more than 100 people at a Lewiston union hall on Thursday after an endorsement from former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. This doesn’t happen in normal mayoral races in Maine.
Macdonald: Montejo told the Sun Journal that she’s registered lots of new voters for this election, and “what’s amazing me is how many voters were born in the 1920s.” She couldn’t quantify the number of older voters this week.
That’s a dream scenario for Macdonald, a retired police detective who has drawn his strength from more suburban — and older — voters. He’s not holding rallies or phone banks, but these are his people, and he’s hoping they show up in droves.
If he wins, it means his base of voters showed up to send him back, sending a message to Chin — and all Maine Democrats — that sometimes, even a well-funded, well-executed and aggressive campaign isn’t enough.