President Donald Trump talks with former Maine Gov. Paul LePage at a Bangor rally during his 2016 campaign. The Maine Republican Party will switch from a party-run caucus to a presidential primary in 2020 as it looks to put Trump on a smooth re-election path. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Republican Party will hold a presidential primary in March as it looks to renominate President Donald Trump, following Democrats in using a new law allowing a move from party-run caucuses to the first nominating primaries here since 2000.

The Democratic-led Legislature passed a law allowing the switch to state-run primaries this year after the 2016 election was marked by crowded municipal caucuses on the Democratic side and hard-to-reach regional caucuses on the Republican side. The shift is optional for parties.

The two parties are in much different positions approaching the 2020 election. The Republican National Committee has melded with Trump’s re-election campaign and he faces only longshot challengers in his own party, while 19 well-known Democrats are running for the nomination.

Six Republican state parties have canceled presidential caucuses or primaries, according to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Republicans in 19 states did that for incumbent George W. Bush in 2004 and Democrats in 13 states did it in 2012 for Barack Obama, neither of whom faced serious primary opposition.

Maine won’t be one of them. The party’s state committee voted unanimously in September to hold a primary, said Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party. He said it was the best way to conform to state law and party rules while ensuring the highest turnout by allowing Republicans to vote in their towns.

“It seemed like the smart thing to do and the most people will be able to participate,” he said.

Savage said all of Maine’s delegates will be awarded to a candidate who wins more than 50 percent of votes. The New York Times reported Wednesday that state delegate plans — due to the national party this week — follow a Trump campaign effort to avoid a contentious national convention in 2020. Maine Republicans had a similar 50 percent rule during the 2016 caucuses.

The decision leaves a small opening for Trump’s challengers — former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois — though a national poll released Wednesday by The Economist and YouGov said Trump had 87 percent support from Republicans, while Weld had 2 percent. The others had 1 percent each.

Under the new law, all Republican and Democratic primary candidates will still have to get signatures from at least 2,000 registered voters to appear on the ballot. Savage said that would be “a heavy lift for anybody who doesn’t have organizational infrastructure here.”

Savage said the party made its decision in part because of how Democratic Gov. Janet Mills handled a new law enshrining ranked-choice voting in presidential races. It will be used in the general election, but she delayed the law’s effective date until after the March 3 primaries.

Republicans generally oppose the voting method that Maine became the first state to use in after a 2016 referendum. Savage said members do not want to be forced to use it.

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...