Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, listens to proceedings at the State House in this 2019 file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Minority Republicans in the Maine Legislature continue to trail Democrats in polling while facing a massive spending deficit in key races, raising questions about whether they will be able to win key battlegrounds after two years in the wilderness in Augusta.

It comes as the 2021 legislative session promises to be one of the most consequential in recent history. Gov. Janet Mills is crafting a new two-year budget proposal as the state faces a projected $1.4 billion shortfall over three years, dwarfing those in past recessions. The Central Maine Power corridor and other utility matters promise to be a massive issue as well.

The 2018 election swept Mills and fellow Democrats into control of Augusta after eight years under former Republican Gov. Paul LePage. It led to a 20-15 Democratic majority, a massive 87-56 majority for Democrats in the House and a frustrating two years for Republicans. The Senate is the more competitive chamber, with a handful of perennial swing seats.

But Republicans have seemed to gain little traction even as Mills unilaterally steers the state through the coronavirus pandemic after the Legislature adjourned in March. While Republicans have criticized her economic restrictions and not involving lawmakers more in her response, she carried 62 percent approval in a Bangor Daily News-Digital Research poll released this week.

In the same survey, 51 percent of Mainers said they expected to vote for Democrats in state elections, while only 44 percent said they expected to vote for Republicans. The gap between the parties remained largely steady relative to a BDN poll conducted in August.

At the same time, Democrats are deeply outspending Republicans in legislative races. While that is normal in Maine, the percentage-wise gap between the parties is wider in 2020 than it was two years ago. Outside Democratic groups — including campaign committees steered by party leaders — have spent $600,000, nearly four times more than Republicans’ $160,000.

Top Republicans brushed those disadvantages off, saying their quality of candidates would make the difference in November. Some Democrats say they have yet to see the benefits of the outsized spending, a possible side effect of the pandemic as the virus has changed traditional campaigning often centered at parades, festivals and community events.

“If I worried about being outspent by the Democrats, I would be in trouble,” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, long a top recruiter for his party.

The flow of cash has allowed Democrats to buoy some of their most vulnerable members, including Sens. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, who is facing Assistant House Majority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, and Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, who won by just 235 votes in 2018 and is facing Navy veteran and businessman Matt Leonard.

They have also gone on the offensive. They have spent $94,000 — more than any other race — to support retired Kennebunk teacher and longtime football coach Joe Rafferty, who is facing Town Manager Michael Pardue for an open seat being vacated by Sen. Robert Foley, R-Wells. They are also keeping Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, occupied by boosting Rep. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, with $60,000 in her race against him.

Timberlake said that while more money might translate into more ads and mailers, Republicans can overcome that by getting their message out in other ways, pointing to cheaper alternatives like social media, door-knocking and word of mouth. He said candidates “are doing their job” and the party is “doing the best we can with the money we have.”

Some of those contested races have seen sparks. The Maine Ethics Commission is looking into potentially illegal polling against Maxmin while it quickly dismissed a complaint into Stewart’s political committee. Stewart, a member of a well-known family running against Carpenter in a deep-red district, noted the complaint was used as a basis for negative ads against him.

While he said it was hard for Republicans to match Democrat’s spending in the race — his party has spent about $13,000, a quarter of what Democrats have dropped — he was not deterred by the difference.

“Clearly, the other side is quite scared of losing that seat,” he said.

Carpenter said he had expected outsized spending around his race because of the tilt of his district. But he had not seen much evidence of that spending.

“I hope it’s working,” he said, noting he planned to release a series of “hokey and homemade” TV ads over the last month of the campaign.

BDN writer Jessica Piper contributed research.

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