A sign tells visitors to the State House to be quiet outside the Maine Senate chamber in this 2018 file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s political parties have spent big on legislative races in the final month of the 2020 election as majority Democrats maintain a spending advantage but Republicans have an outside shot at flipping the competitive Senate.

Democrats have the inside position in Tuesday’s election after a 2018 wave that has made Maine one of 15 states to have the party in full control of the executive and legislative branches behind Gov. Janet Mills, a 20-15 Senate majority and an 87-56 edge on Republicans in House.

But those margins are close enough in both chambers for Ballotpedia to deem that Democratic trifecta somewhat vulnerable. The Maine Senate is seen as the more competitive chamber and late spending has illuminated a relatively wide map that could go many different ways depending on the results of the targeted presidential and U.S. Senate elections across Maine. 

Democratic outside groups have spent nearly $2.1 million to influence legislative races since mid-July, while Republicans spent a third of that at $683,000, according to state campaign finance records. Those numbers are roughly in line with 2018 figures with two-thirds in October alone, though Republicans have closed the gap a bit in recent weeks.

Control of the Senate often comes down to the same battlegrounds. President Donald Trump did poorly along the coast in 2016 but overachieved in inland towns where Republicans did just well enough to cling to a narrow Senate majority that they lost to Democrats two years ago. 

That could happen in 2020 as Maine sees divergent polling by region in top-tier races. For example, a SurveyUSA poll released Thursday found U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, up by 12 percentage points in the 2nd District as House Speaker Sara Gideon, her Democratic challenger, had a mirroring lead in the 1st District.

Those regional differences could make big differences in the Maine Senate races, which saw four races decided by margins of less than 2 percentage points in 2018. Top among the potential swing seats is the one held by Sen. Mike Carpenter, D-Houlton, who has won two narrow elections in a deeply conservative district that Trump won with 62 percent of votes in 2016.

Carpenter, a former attorney general, now faces Assistant House Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle. Another narrow victory went to Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, who faces Republican Matt Leonard of Auburn. Democrats have spent more than $240,000 in each district.

By contrast, the most expensive race is for an open seat being vacated by Sen. Robert Foley, R-Wells, in a district lost narrowly by Trump in 2016. It has drawn more than $323,000 in outside spending. Kennebunk Town Manager Michael Pardue, a Republican, is facing Democrat Joe Rafferty, the town high school’s longtime football coach in a battle of well-heeled candidates.

Other longtime swing districts are also in play. Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, is in a fight with progressive state Rep. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, that has seen $248,000 in spending with $194,000 from Democrats. Spending has been roughly equal in the race between Sen. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, and former state Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth.

The House is more out of reach for Republicans, but they have a chance to flip some of the fringe seats that Democrats took in the 2018 election. Three of those seats are among the 10 priciest races so far by outside spending, including a rematch between Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, and former state Rep. Stephanie Hawke, D-Boothbay Harbor.The race that has drawn the most outside spending, however, is one represented by Rep. Bettyann Sheats, D-Auburn, carried narrowly by Trump in 2016. She is facing Republican Laurel Libby, a nurse who worked on an unsuccessful March campaign to repeal tightened school vaccine requirements. It has drawn $34,000 in outside spending, with $26,000 from Democrats.

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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...