Maine's First Congressional District candidates include incumbent Chellie Pingree (from left), Marty Grohman and Mark Holbrook. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s 1st Congressional District has been held by Democrats for 21 years, it isn’t being targeted by national party groups and it has a five-term Democratic incumbent whose vote shares only once have slipped below 55 percent.

Still, there are Republicans who see a path to knocking off U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree in Maine’s most compelling political science experiment of the 2018 cycle. Their hope relies on the state’s new ranked-choice voting system — and not necessarily by getting a Republican elected.

The candidacy of independent state Rep. Marty Grohman of Biddeford rests on the method, which will be used in Maine’s two U.S. House of Representatives races and independent U.S. Sen. Angus King’s re-election bid this November. It won’t be used in state general elections.

The race between Grohman, Pingree of North Haven and Mark Holbrook, a Republican from Brunswick who lost to the congresswoman in 2016, won’t get as much attention as the governor’s race or a nationally targeted one in the 2nd District, but it will be a good demonstration of how ranked-choice voting changes the campaign calculus.

Democrats aren’t sweating Pingree’s seat yet. Grohman, a former Democrat, has been praised during his run by some Republicans, including Gov. Paul LePage, though both state parties have hammered him and Holbrook largely dismisses him as a threat.

Former Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said Pingree enters her race in “a strong position.” Her district voted against President Donald Trump in 2016 and Grant said it likely will be comfortable with Pingree again in a year that is expected to favor Democrats nationally.

On Grohman’s Republican flank, Grant said Holbrook’s status as the most pro-Trump candidate would make it difficult for the independent to make inroads with rank-and-file Republican voters.

“I just don’t see how the equation works for somebody like Grohman,” Grant said.

But a proponent of ranked-choice voting said even if the method doesn’t lead to change this election, it will keep voters from worrying that an independent is a “spoiler” like in plurality races and could force Pingree to campaign in ways that she wouldn’t in a conventional two-way race.

“We’re allowing the diversity of opinion that actually exists in all of these congressional districts to be revealed,” said Rob Richie, the executive director of FairVote, a electoral reform group.

Under ranked-choice voting, voters rank candidates by preference. Elections are decided in an instant runoff, eliminating the candidate with the fewest first-place votes and shifting second-round votes to others. That continues until one candidate has more than 50 percent.

So if Pingree wins an outright majority of first-place votes in November, the ranked-choice tallies won’t matter. But if Grohman drags her below 50 percent and wins support from Republicans to beat Holbrook solidly, he could win with second-place votes from people who preferred Holbrook.

Pingree is a reliable Democrat whose campaign said in a recent fundraising email that Democrats will serve as a check on Trump’s “dangerous agenda” if they win the House in 2018. Grohman left the Democrats last year and has sided with Republicans on economic issues.

He took heat from progressives in 2017 for backing the restoration of a tipped minimum wage for servers and supported the tax overhaul passed by congressional Republicans last year. However, he supports voter-approved Medicaid expansion and is pro-abortion rights.

Holbrook is a social and fiscal conservative who said during his last campaign that he wants stricter immigration policies than Trump. After a woman was killed in a 2017 clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Virginia, Holbrook issued a release saying the groups “represent opposite sides of the same hate-filled coin.”

Grohman’s public pitch isn’t centered around the voting method. In an interview, he pivoted from questions on ranked-choice voting, saying “people are frustrated” and they don’t want somebody who is “super-partisan,” but somebody who can “get things done.”

Earlier this month, he released endorsements from more than two dozen prominent Republicans, leading the Maine Republican Party to issue a statement calling Grohman and Pingree “two sides of the same liberal Democrat coin.”

One of the Grohman endorsees was Assistant Maine Senate Majority Leader Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, who said Grohman can “perhaps” win with the assistance of ranked-choice voting, saying he’s more likely to carry the district than Holbrook.

“I think he has a hard time being representative of the politics of the 1st District,” she said of the Republican, “and I think that Marty is a common-sense candidate that does represent the politics of this district.”

All of this came after LePage said in a June speech that Grohman “is what Maine needs.” The Maine Democratic Party hit the independent in a statement afterward. LePage strategist Brent Littlefield declined comment on whether those words constituted an endorsement.

In an interview, Holbrook said the independent’s candidacy complicates things for him on one hand, saying he now has to “attack Marty to expose him for what he is” and that Grohman “was a liberal Democrat 10 minutes ago and now he calls himself an independent.” Holbrook is urging his supporters to only rank one choice on the November ballot.

But Holbrook said that “nobody’s buying” Grohman in the Republican grass-roots, saying he has run into people wondering whether LePage “had a stroke” when he praised Grohman and wondering if it was “a payoff” for a vote in the Legislature. Grohman strategist Lance Dutson cited his “long record” of compromise in the Legislature.

Grohman has a hard road. A recent AARP poll of Mainers over age 50 found 6 percent support for him, compared to 49 percent for Pingree, 30 percent for Holbrook and 14 percent undecided. While his path is clear, taking it will be difficult and Pingree is playing it cool.

“While we’re glad ranked-choice voting will be used statewide for the first time on a statewide basis in Maine, we don’t really have a reason to believe it will change the final outcome of the race,” Eric Feigenbaum, Pingree’s campaign manager, said.

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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...