Maine Gov. Paul LePage, left, talks with Lewiston mayoral candidate Shane Bouchard at Simones Hot Dog Stand in Lewiston on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. The conversation took place during a campaign stop in support of Bouchard's candidacy. Credit: Christopher Cousins

LEWISTON, Maine — City Councilor Shane Bouchard narrowly won Lewiston’s mayoral runoff election on Tuesday, keeping the seat in Maine’s second-largest city in Republican hands and beating back a second straight challenge from progressive activist Ben Chin.

Bouchard, a 37-year-old landscaping company owner backed by Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, won with 51 percent of votes and only 150 more than Chin, an organizer for the progressive Maine People’s Alliance who lost a 2015 runoff to Mayor Robert Macdonald.

The result is another blow to Democrats. Chin’s campaigns have spent more than $100,000 combined in the last two elections and the party has lost ground in the historic Democratic stronghold in the era of LePage, who won his home city in 2010 and 2014 behind messaging around welfare reform that helped both him and Macdonald.

“I think Lewiston really appreciates a real grassroots effort and that’s exactly what this was,” Bouchard said.

Bouchard promised at a November mayoral debate to be “a mayor for all of Lewiston.” He pledged to work to improve Lewiston’s often-maligned image and grow its tax base by developing the area around the city’s highway exit, painting Chin as hyper-partisan.

More than 7,100 Lewiston residents voted, a strong turnout for a special election on a snowy December day. In Lewiston, the mayor’s office is mostly ceremonial and nominally nonpartisan. Bouchard will have to contend with a Democratic majority on the City Council.

But the race was also about more than just local government. The city is a key swing community in Maine, and the Maine Democratic Party and Maine Republican Party did organizing in the race, with Democrats spending $2,200 on Chin’s behalf as of Nov. 28.

Bouchard was a late entry into the race in August, but he quickly solidified a position as the alternative to Chin. The Democrat won 42 percent of votes in the five-way November election, but Bouchard took 29 percent to get into a runoff that came because nobody got a majority.

During his campaign, the mayor-elect took a more conciliatory tone than Macdonald, who said in 2012 that Somali immigrants who have come to the area by the thousands over the past 20 years should “leave your culture at the door.” But he countered Chin’s key Bates College constituency in an October debate, saying out-of-state students shouldn’t vote in local elections.

Chin came back in 2017 with a lower-profile campaign than the $90,000 bid against Macdonald two years, but a just-as-bold agenda: He proposed turning the city’s General Assistance program into a job corps and starting a $30 million fund to renovate rental properties.

After results were announced, Chin said he’d turn his full attention to his work with the Maine People’s Alliance, which is fighting to fund voter-approved Medicaid expansion and pass a universal home care program for elderly and disabled Mainers in 2018.

“While certainly this individual outcome of the race tonight is a bummer, there are so many ways to make changes and we’re going to keep pulling all those levers,” he said.

He faced fallout during the last two weeks of the campaign when a conservative website published campaign emails in which he called certain voters “racists” and revealed that his car had been towed because of unpaid parking tickets.

As Bouchard and Chin stood side by side greeting voters at Longley Elementary School on Tuesday afternoon, a middle-aged man walking out of the polling place said goodbye to Bouchard. To Chin, he said “not a racist.” He refused to talk to a reporter.

Jason Henry, a 43-year-old Chin voter who works in information technology, said the emails were “a smokescreen” and that the Democrat is a “genuine” person who “cares about people.”

But Rick Ouellette, 47, a lifelong city resident, said he backed Bouchard because he’s a bit like LePage and will work to “stop spending, get people working and squeeze the budget.”

“I don’t think we can afford him,” Ouellette said of Chin.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...