Bernie Sanders waves to supporters as he takes the stage during a 2016 rally at the State Theatre in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

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U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is running for president again next year, but things have changed drastically for the 2016 runner-up for the Democratic nomination and winner of the Maine caucuses since four years ago.

He began his last run as a longshot and lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton, but he is now an early polling favorite and his grassroots-fueled platform has been mainstreamed in the party. Four senators running for the nomination co-sponsored his “Medicare for all” bill in 2017.

Paradoxically, therein lies the problem for the 77-year-old Sanders as he approaches this run as some of his biggest Maine backers are keeping their powder dry.

Sanders still figures to have significant support in Maine, but lots of other candidates are talking about the issues that he has been on the forefront of championing. Sanders still has a formidable grassroots operation, with his nascent campaign reporting $4 million raised in the first 12 hours from 150,000 donors after announcing his run on Tuesday morning.

The field is fractured so far and could eclipse more than a dozen credible candidates, with U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota running already. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is exploring a run and former Vice President Joe Biden and others may run.

Harris, Warren, Booker and Gillibrand are the sponsors of Sanders’ universal health care bill. Sanders’ push for free public college tuition has gotten some momentum. They are mostly markers for the Democratic activist base as the party tries to oust President Donald Trump, whose approval rating has long hovered around 40 percent.

This field is going to look a lot different by the time Maine gets around to selecting a Democratic nominee in March 2020. Sanders — and perhaps Biden because of his profile and Warren due to her New England home — could do well here if they’re still in the race then.

State Rep. Ben Collings, D-Portland, who ran Sanders’ campaign here, said “he holds a significant advantage in Maine” and “should be definitely a front-runner nationally,” citing a national infrastructure and high name recognition levels compared to 2016 and the field.

But other high-profile Sanders supporters were cooler to his run: Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said “it’s hard right now to see a clear path for Sanders given the breadth and depth of the field” and Rep. Diane Denk, D-Kennebunk, a Democratic national committeewoman and Sanders delegate in 2016, said she’s “looking at everybody” but likely “will not do a repeat.”

Maine still has to figure out how it will choose presidential nominees, which could make a difference in who it picks. Maine has run presidential caucuses — nominating elections operated by parties — since 2004. The Legislature has taken initial steps to return to state-run primaries in 2020, but lawmakers will need to find the money for that this year.

If it happens, turnout will likely increase in Maine’s nominating elections. There was a sense in 2016 that Trump — and not Maine caucus winner Ted Cruz, a senator from Texas — would have won a primary here due to a wider base of support that could have beaten Cruz’s tighter organization. Sanders’ caucus victory was marked by heavy turnout, so he could have won anyway. But in a fractured field, the method could matter more.

Today in A-town

Lawmakers are in for a marathon of legislative committee meetings today to vet referred bills. As we wrote Tuesday, the Legislature is getting closer to sending its first bill to Gov. Janet Mills for signing. In the meantime, bills continue to pile up on both chambers’ doorsteps. Today will only bring more bills recommended by committee for passage in the House and Senate. Here are some of the highlights:

— LD 514, sponsored by Rep. John Schneck, D-Bangor, seeks to change election clerk party affiliation requirements. During an election, municipal clerks are required by law to staff elections equally with enrolled Democratic and Republican volunteers. But that’s been more challenging for some clerks in recent years who’ve generally had fewer and more unenrolled volunteers. Schneck’s bill seeks to adjust those requirements to 33 representation from both parties, leaving the last 34 percent to be selected “without regard to party enrollment.” A public hearing on the bill will begin at 9 a.m. in the Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs meeting.

— Three bills seek to prohibit the use of polystyrene and other disposable food containers: LD 289, LD 621, LD 505, from Rep. Stanley Zeigler, D-Montville, Rep. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, and Rep. Deane Rykerson, D-Kittery, in that order. Rykerson’s proposal is the most sweeping, as it seeks to eliminate completely restaurants’ use of single-use food containers if a customer is dining in. These will be discussed during a public hearing beginning at 1 p.m. before the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

— LD 329, from Rep. Barbara Cardone, D-Bangor, would allow a person to seek medical attention for someone else experiencing a drug-related overdose without running the risk of being arrested or prosecuted, even if they are in possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia. The Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety will take up this bill at 10 a.m.

Reading list

— Maine’s junior senator continues to express concerns about the president’s aversion to national intelligence. U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, told CNN on Tuesday that Trump would send the message that he doesn’t want the truth if he fires his director of national intelligence over contradicting him during a congressional hearing. “If in fact Dan Coats is pushed out, which I deeply hope isn’t the case because he’s a great public servant, but if he is, the message is ‘Don’t give me the facts,’” King, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN. Last month, Coats and other chiefs from the U.S. intelligence community briefed the Senate panel on global threats facing the U.S., and their assessments of threats posed by North Korea, the Islamic State group and Iran contradicted Trump’s own pronouncements.

— Power, pot and potentially harmful behaviors are keeping State House lobbyists busy. The Associated Press reports that lobbyist disclosure documents show that representatives of utilities, the state’s burgeoning cannabis industry, gambling and tobacco rank near the top of a list of more than 160 companies, industry groups and advocacy organizations that spent nearly $360,000 on lobbying Maine state officials in December and January. The lobbyist reports largely mirror the donor list for Mills’ inauguration and transition teams, which were dominated by casino, marijuana, energy, paper company and financial services money.

— Maine is inching forward with plans to implement recreational marijuana sales. The Department of Administrative and Financial Services announced Tuesday that it had signed a three-year contract with a Florida company to track cannabis growth and distribution from “seed to sale.” The $150,000 deal calls for the company, Franwell Inc., to bring the cloud-based software and radio-frequency identification system it uses in 12 other states to track cannabis in Maine for both medical and recreational use. In November 2016, Maine voters approved the recreational use, retail sale and taxation of marijuana. Implementation has stalled as lawmakers and the previous administration struggled to develop a regulatory framework.

— Public safety officials in one Maine county are alarmed that turmoil in a local fire department could jeopardize the safety of other firefighters in mutual-aid situations. The allegations came in a Jan. 23 letter from four Waldo County emergency response officials to the Thorndike Select Board and town residents. It detailed safety concerns and leadership problems with George Russell, the town’s 33-year-old former fire chief who stepped down to the position of assistant fire chief after he admitted stealing more than $5,000 from the fire department’s coffers in 2014. Meanwhile, Thorndike’s fire chief and most of the town’s firefighters have threatened to quit today if Russell, who resigned, is not reinstated and the town does not release roughly $85,000 in the fire department’s truck and equipment replacement fund so they can get better equipment.

Take ME, please

People concerned about the U.S. national debt have launched an online petition to sell Montana to Canada for $1 trillion. As of this morning, it had garnered more than 10,000 signatures.

The premise, as spelled out by organizer Ian Hammond, is basic:

“We have too much debt and Montana is useless. Just tell them it has beavers or something.”

Maine has beavers. And our border with Canada is a lot shorter than Montana’s. All in all, Maine makes a much better bargaining chip.

Instead of dipping the international border deep into the Great Plains — which would have to happen as a result of the Montana sale — we could just plant a customs checkpoint on the Piscataqua River bridge and roll a little more barbed wire along the state’s western border.

Mainers would lose easy access to cheap New Hampshire liquor, but the universal health care, hunky prime minister, elimination of poutine tariffs and other perks of polite democratic socialism might offset that drawback.

Looking long-term, water is going to be the oil of the 21st century, so combining Maine’s liquid assets with Canada’s abundant riverine resources would better position us in the global marketplace.

It really makes much more sense to deal Maine to Canada than Montana. Half the state still has relatives there too.

Someone start an online petition. Set the asking price at $499 billion (U.S.) to highlight how much better buying Maine would be than that Montana ripoff. But tuck in a small-print clause that Mainers get to keep 1/50th of the proceeds as a parting gift. 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...