Former Maine State Senator from Wilton, Maine, Tom Saviello, speaks during a public hearing held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the issuance of the Clean Water Act permit for the NECEC/CMP Transmission Corredor for Hydro Quebec power for Massachusetts that will run through Maine, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019 in Lewiston, Maine. Credit: Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal via AP)

AUGUSTA, Maine — A wide majority of legislative candidates who responded to a Bangor Daily News survey indicated opposition to the proposed Central Maine Power corridor, making it likely the utility will find a less-friendly environment in Augusta in 2021.

The Nov. 3 election is the first in which the $1 billion project is one of the top-tier issues in state politics. While Maine’s high court struck down a referendum this year aiming to block the project as unconstitutional, opponents have launched a second initiative and a separate effort would buy out CMP and the state’s other dominant utility to establish a consumer-owned utility.

Polling has shown the corridor to be deeply unpopular as CMP has struggled with the nation’s lowest consumer satisfaction rating for a utility, but the company has won recent battles in Augusta behind a massive lobbying effort. In 2019, the Legislature only mustered narrow majority votes on anti-corridor bills, not enough to turn back vetoes from Gov. Janet Mills.

Both the support and opposition crossed party lines, though more Republicans backed Mills’ vetoes than her fellow Democrats did with opposition centered in the affected area of western Maine. Opinion may turn further against the project in Augusta, according to a BDN survey of candidates for all 186 seats in the Legislature, though proponents are trying to stem it.

A total of 176 incumbents and challengers — just over half of all candidates — responded to the survey, with 66 percent saying they definitely did not support the project and only 15 percent affirmatively say they did. The response rate was higher in Maine Senate races, in which 39 of 70 candidates opposed the project. Only 10 candidates — three of them Republican incumbents — affirmatively backed the corridor. Another 10 Senate candidates did not respond.

Former Maine Senate President Rick Bennett of Oxford, a former state Republican Party chair favored to win a return bid in his old district, has made corridor opposition a focal point of his campaign despite old allies — including former Gov. Paul LePage — supporting the project. Bennett has run twice for Congress and has been seen as a potential candidate for high office.

He said he has seen a lot of demand from voters to get lawmakers and candidates on the record on where they stand on the issue and does not consider it a political one. His Democratic opponent, Katherine Branch of South Paris, opposes the corridor as well.

“To me, it’s a question of, ‘Who are you going to serve — the corporations, or can I count on you to serve me?’” Bennett said.

Hydro-Quebec, CMP’s provincial-owned partner in the corridor, has taken interest in legislative races. The company’s U.S. branch sent out letters to candidates in late September outlining jobs and emissions effects as well as community benefits promised under the plan.

The project, formally called the New England Clean Energy Connect, would include a 145-mile corridor through western Maine to take Quebec hydropower to the regional grid. It was chosen as part of a Massachusetts effort to increase renewable energy supplies.

The year has been marked by a campaign over the project. CMP and allied groups spent more than $20.5 million in 2019 and 2020 against the anti-corridor initiative that was barred from the ballot — more than the total spent on any referendum in Maine history.

Legislators are expected to consider efforts aimed at the corridor in next year’s session. Other actions are making their way through the courts. The project awaits key federal permits — including one from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Energy — as well as permission from municipalities.

Former state Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton, who leads a group opposed to the corridor, said the heightened political interest around the project has grown as more information has come to light and his group’s skepticism about those benefits has grown into statewide animosity.

“The seeds we’ve planted have since turned into a monstrous redwood,” he said.

Promoters of the project blame increasing political conversation around the project on natural gas and fossil fuel companies spending millions against it. Tony Buxton, a lawyer who lobbies for the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, said he hoped this year’s conversation in the Legislature would not be like last year’s, which he called “short on facts and long on emotion.”

Jonathan Breed, the executive director of Clean Energy Matters, a CMP-backed political action committee, said lawmakers should consider long-term effects of legislation or referendum efforts on further solar and wind projects. He said the group would be working hard to “ensure policymakers know the facts.”

Lawmakers who expounded upon their positions seemed to consider environmental impacts, potential benefits and constituents feelings in their stances. Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, said she initially supported the corridor for environmental reasons, but later flipped because of concerns about the effects of large dams on runoff and indigenous communities in Canada.

“It’s an unpopular position to be in favor of the corridor,” she said, adding she felt hesitant to voice prior support for the corridor in her liberal district. “There’s a lot of pressure to be anti-corridor on the Legislature. But the reality is, what I care about is the planet.”

The conversation is extending to parts of the state largely unaffected by the corridor. Craig Pendleton, a Republican from Old Orchard Beach running for an open Senate seat, said he was “leaning yes” on the corridor while questioning the number of jobs it would create and the promised benefits. Still, he said the political chatter makes it difficult to suss things out.

“The rhetoric on both sides clouds everyone’s decision making,” he said.