AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine could see tight legislative elections across the state later this year as Democrats gear up to maintain their State House majorities, while Republicans see opportunities to take back control after four years of a Democratic trifecta.
That is somewhat of a rarity in the national context. While 46 states will hold legislative elections this year, some lean so heavily one way or the other that party control is not in question. Others have highly gerrymandered legislative maps that all but entrench one-party rule.
In Maine, both parties have proven they can win statewide in recent years. While Democrats have upped their voter registration advantage here in recent years, geographic polarization has given Republicans outsized chances in State House races. All that sets up for competitive legislative elections in November and means Maine has the attention of national parties.
About 40 percent of legislative maps in the U.S. are strongly biased toward one party, said Peter Miller, a researcher at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit that tracks redistricting and advocates for fair maps. He said partisan maps were often the result of a redistricting process controlled entirely by a single party, such as the Republican-led states of Georgia, Florida and Wisconsin and the Democratic ones in New York and Illinois.
Maine has a bipartisan commission of lawmakers develop maps which must then get two-thirds approval in both chambers of the Legislature, making extreme partisan gerrymandering nearly impossible. New maps for the 2022 election were passed last year.
Several ratings of Maine’s maps found they favor Republicans slightly. The major reason is increasing geographic polarization across the state, with a handful of deeply blue districts in the Portland area but more that favor Republicans across the state, matching national patterns that are increasing rural-urban divides within states and regions.
“What you tend to see is Democrats cluster and Republicans are more efficiently distributed,” said Miller, of the Brennan Center.
An analysis by FiveThirtyEight found the seat most likely to give one party or the other an advantage in the Maine House is about 6 percentage points more conservative than Maine as a whole. That is a smaller advantage compared with the old maps, under which Maine Democrats were able to maintain a majority.
But it could provide an edge to Republicans in a year when the national environment may already favor them in a midterm year for President Joe Biden, a Democrat whose approval rating has floundered for months. Republicans successfully flipped both legislative chambers and seized the governor’s office in 2010 amid a national Republican wave. Their path to doing so again this year is narrower though not impossible.
In the Senate, Republicans need to net five seats. Democrats have relatively few new opportunities in the chamber after strong performances in 2018 and 2020.
Republicans could pick up a win in the June special election in Hancock County between Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth and former Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, which will be held under the districts from the past decade. But the November election there, featuring the same candidates, will be using a map slightly more favorable to Democrats, as several conservative towns in western part of the county shift to a different district.
Potential targets for Republicans are open seats in Cumberland, Androscoggin and Lincoln counties where former Republican lawmakers are running, but Republicans will have to unseat at least one Democratic incumbent to get a majority. Their top target overall may be Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash, who faces Rep. Sue Bernard, R-Caribou.
There are more opportunities for both parties on the 151-seat Maine House map. Democrats have held the lower chamber for a decade, but Republicans widened their minority to 66 seats from 55 two years ago. They would need nearly a dozen more to control the chamber.
The Republican State Legislative Committee, a national group working to elect Republicans to state-level offices, launched a digital ad campaign in Maine and other Thursday targeting what it identified as “regretful” voters who supported President Joe Biden in 2020.
“The reason Democrats in Maine’s legislature are on defense in 2022 is because voters are fed up with how their policies have been in lockstep with Joe Biden’s failing liberal agenda,” said Stephanie Rivera, a spokesperson for the campaign arm.
While Republicans have looked to highlight a Biden at every level of elections, including the Legislature, a counterpart group said Democrats would look to defend their majorities by highlighting accomplishments in the State House, including expanding Medicaid benefits to include dental coverage and boosting funding for child care.
“Democrats will defend their majorities in the House and Senate by focusing on their accomplishments for working people, not by mudslinging and playing political games,” said Lauren McIlvaine, a regional spokesperson for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Maine House Republicans’ gains in the 2020 election. They won 66 seats, up from 56 ahead of that election.