People mill around in the State House in Augusta, April 29, 2016.

Good morning from Augusta. Democrats are outspending Republicans by a historic margin in legislative races in 2018 as they seek to win control of both chambers for the first time in six years — though plenty of battlegrounds remain, particularly in the Maine Senate.

Legislative races are often overshadowed and they have been particularly this year because of the intense national interest in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and the open-seat governor’s race. But the makeup of the Legislature will set the tenor for the next governor’s administration.

In the Senate, Republicans hold the slimmest possible 18-17 majority. Democrats have only a plurality in the House, but they’re in control of the lower chamber 73-70 over Republicans with seven other members who generally lean Democrats’ way as a group.

Republicans are used to being outspent in legislative races, but this year is different. In the last five legislative cycles from 2008 to 2016, Democrats have generally used an edge in outside money to outspend Republicans in legislative races. In 2018, the candidates are also spending more and management of the taxpayer-funded Clean Election program is a major reason why.

In both chambers, Democrats have spent just over 69 percent of the campaign money and outside money that has come into legislative races this year. From 2008 to 2016, their overall edge by that measure was 55 percent — a gap that often has proven manageable for them.

The added outside money is helping Democrats in competitive races. In the Senate, the biggest race by outside money is the one between Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, and physician Ned Claxton of Auburn, which drew $340,000 according to data available Tuesday night — 75 percent of that from Democratic groups.

In the House, seven races have drawn at least $20,000 in outside money. Four have Republican incumbents, three have Democratic incumbents and one seat is open. The priciest race is in Skowhegan between Rep. Betty Austin, a Democrat, and Republican Anne Amadon. Democrats are outspending Republicans in each one.

Those highest-spending Senate campaigns are being driven by taxpayer money. Some of those candidates will likely come up short. The 12 highest spenders are using the Clean Election system — which was disabled by Gov. Paul LePage for part of the campaign — and 10 of them are Democrats to just one Republican and one independent.

Most of them are candidates in toss-up races, including both House Majority Leader Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, and her opponent, former state Rep. Jayne Crosby Giles, R-Belfast. Claxton is third at just over $65,000 in campaign spending while Espling has spent just over $18,000.

But they also include longer shots, including Democrat Jan Collins of Wilton, running against Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, in a long-red district and independent Crystal Canney of Portland, who is facing Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, in the state’s bluest district. Sen. Jim Dill, D-Old Town, has spent $50,000 in a race with Maia Dendinger, a Maine Socialist Party candidate from Orono running as an independent.

There are still pick-up opportunities for Republicans, though mapping their road to victory in the House is difficult. All of this money, a likely Democratic-leaning national environment and a higher number of termed-out Republicans probably gives Democrats the edge in both chambers.

However, we also said that in 2016. Senate Republicans clung to a majority and House Republicans gained seats. In the Senate, Republicans have a few crucial pick-up opportunities that could decide whether or not they hang on. They include the race between Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, and Republican Kathy Reynolds of Houlton.

It seems to be a harder road for Republicans in the more volatile House, where Democrats are sinking the most money into southern Maine districts that were generally unkind to President Donald Trump while defending some incumbents in rural seats, including Austin and Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who is running against Republican Guy Lebida of Bowdoin.

A day for debates

Debates dominated Maine’s political landscape on Tuesday, but the dialogue was more about brand reinforcement than making news. Gubernatorial candidates Shawn Moody, a Republican, and independent Terry Hayes spent two hours Tuesday morning talking about their campaigns on WGAN radio. Democrat Janet Mills did not participate.

Other than disagreeing on how Maine should select its attorney general — Moody thinks the governor should appoint one while Hayes likes the current method of having the Legislature elect constitutional officers — each candidate primarily spent the morning reinforcing campaign narratives by reiterating past statements.

Maine Public hosted debates for U.S. House candidates. The leading candidates in the 2nd Congressional District ignored it, so we will too. The three candidates vying in Maine’s 1st District — where incumbent Democrat Chellie Pingree is a distinct favorite — engaged in some gentle back-and-forth on climate change, immigration and money in politics. Republican Mark Holbrook and independent Marty Grohman — who is hoping that this year’s first-in-the-nation use of ranked-choice voting will open a path for an upset victory — toned down the bickering that had marked previous debates. Holbrook continued to tout his conservative bona fides — despite running in a district where the electorate tilts left — while Grohman continued to present himself as an antidote to partisan gridlock.

In a late flurry before Election Day, the three candidates in this year’s U.S. Senate contest participated in two debates on Tuesday. Maine Public hosted an afternoon debate, followed a few hours later by the third televised Senate debate this week, sponsored by WGME and co-moderated by the BDN’s Mike Shepherd. U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, is favored to retain his seat for a second six-year term. He is being challenged by Republican state Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn and Democrat Zak Ringelstein of Yarmouth.

The three tussled over immigration, gun control, Chinese tariffs, trade policy and health care, as well as a controversial tweet of Brakey’s that was criticized in Portland Press Herald editorial Monday for fanning the conspiracy-theory flame on immigration. Brakey was also asked about his position on Trump’s desire to sign an executive order to essentially alter the Constitution and end automatic citizenship for children born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants.

When pressed, Brakey explained why he believes an executive order from Trump to rewrite the 14th Amendment would be lawful or appropriate.

“It’s not just enough to be born here,” Brakey said, claiming that children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants “aren’t really here under our jurisdiction.” Suggesting otherwise “devalues” our citizenship process, he said.

King sharply disagreed, saying, “Anybody born here and living here is subject to the jurisdiction of the state. As a conservative, how can you possibly support a president who’s saying he can amend the Constitution?”

Ringelstein said the president “wants to take us off the cliff of authoritarianism.”

Otherwise, Tuesday night’s debate was a reprise of earlier forums in which Brakey ripped King from the right while Ringelstein jabbed from the left. All three candidates will convene Thursday on WMTW-TV for their last debate.

Mailer questioned

Targeted mailings to Maine voters from a New Hampshire-based “right to work” advocacy group piqued the interest of ethics watchdogs. The Maine Ethics Commission is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. today for a hearing on whether New England Citizens Right to Work Inc. violated Maine law by failing to file an independent expenditure report for the Oct. 22 mailings.

In a response to the commission, representatives of the anti-labor union organization argue that the mailing campaign should be exempt from independent expenditure reporting mandates because it was a candidate survey designed “to inform and educate Right to Work supporters about their candidates’ positions on the forced unionism issue and encourage them to lobby all of their candidates in support of Right to Work.”

Commission staff also questioned whether the group would be required to register as a political action committee in Maine. These issues are relatively minor compared to some past late campaign season transgressions, but the questions raised highlight the ongoing challenge that campaign overseers face as tactics evolve and as gray areas in existing law come to light.

Reading list

A legal battle over whether public money can be used to pay tuition at religious schools in Maine is heating up. The American Civil Liberties Union, its Maine chapter and Americans United for Separation of Church and State on Tuesday filed a motion to intervene in a federal lawsuit that claims the denial of public funds to religious schools in Maine is unconstitutional. Three Maine families in Glenburn, Orrington and Palermo in August sued Maine Education Commissioner Robert Hasson in U.S. District Court in Bangor on behalf of their children. Those towns don’t have their own high schools, and the families argued in their complaint that Maine’s tuition law “violates the principle that the government must not discriminate against, or impose legal difficulties on, religious individuals or institutions simply because they are religious.” Zach Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine, said in a release that prior state and federal court rulings have established precedent that “taxpayers cannot be required to pay to teach children how to pray.”

A Maine woman convicted of stealing her sister’s identity faces deportation. Mount Desert Island resident Emilita Arindela assumed her sister’s identity, faked her own death in her native Philippines and married four times, with the marriages overlapping. The 43-year-old’s story just gets more interesting from there. A recent federal conviction could trigger deportation proceedings. Click here to read the details.

Penobscot County has its first contested election for district attorney this century. The rare contest has triggered more campaign spending. Republican Marianne Lynch and Democrat Joseph Belisle have spent far more than the man they are hoping to replace spent during the past two decades in his re-election campaigns. Lynch has raised $8,250, about three-and-a-half times the $2,330 Belisle has raised, according to the latest campaign finance reports filed Friday with the Maine Ethics Commission. She was her own largest contributor, giving the campaign $6,200. Belisle, a Bangor attorney with a solo practice, made a $655 contribution to his campaign, making him the largest donor. As of Friday, Lynch had about $483 on hand and Belisle had a little over $70, the reports showed. The winner will succeed retiring Democrat R. Christopher Almy, who has held the post since 1986 and run unopposed for re-election since 1998.

The incumbent sheriff of Waldo County faces a rare challenge this year. Independent John Gibbs, a Belfast police sergeant, is running to unseat Sheriff Jeff Trafton, a Republican. The pair propose different approaches to handling domestic violence complaints and the county’s reentry program for soon-to-be released prisoners.

Costume customs

Happy Halloween! Have you picked your costume yet?

The process is fraught with potential perils. Reminder: DO NOT even think about blackface as part of a Halloween ensemble. It’s racist and based on a derogatory, oppressive practice that should not be part of the conversation about fun Halloween get-ups. Take note, Megyn Kelly. Also, don’t dress up as Megyn Kelly.

Likewise, it’s a bad idea to dress yourself or your kid as a genocidal fascist dictator responsible for a world war and the deaths of millions of innocent people. Parenting bloggers warn that, in general, dressing kids up as political figures is a great way to add to the family’s therapy tab.

In fact, it’s probably best not to dress up as a person — real or imagined. As a kid, I once donned a sombrero, curly mustache, fake bandoleros and a bandana to trick-or-treat as what was then a popular cartoon mascot for a brand of corn chips. To a 12-year-old in 1969, it seemed imaginative. But now it makes me feel shame, both because it reflected clueless, insensitive cultural degradation as well as a spineless susceptibility to corporate brainwashing.

I’ve learned that inanimate objects are the safest — and best — Halloween costumes. One of my sisters once dressed entirely in pink, dyed her hair pink and affixed a chair to her head to go out as a discarded wad of bubble gum. Her sore neck was worth it because she was the hit of that year’s party.

Years later, a daughter dyed herself a sickly shade of greenish-blue, wrapped herself in wrinkled aluminum foil and went as spolied leftovers pulled from the far back of the fridge. People loved it, and it scored her extra treats at many stops.

Inanimate object costumes seem to be the way to go. This year, I will just dress the way I usually do, but if anyone asks about my costume, I’ll offer this response: That quivering, lumpy gray mass you see in front of you is dryer lint, bub, so buzz off. Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

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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...