ELLSWORTH, Maine – Blue and yellow signs dot the roadside on Route 1 leading into the city, a gateway to some of coastal Maine’s most famous tourism areas.
Both former Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, and Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, picked the same color scheme for their campaign signs ahead of the June 14 special election in Senate District 7 to fill the seat vacated by former Sen. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth.
The winner of the special election is unlikely to cast a vote between June and November with the Maine Legislature out for the year. But both parties are placing a heavy priority on the outcome with the closely divided coastal district seen as a potential bellwether and a must-win for Republicans at the end of the year if they are to take back the Maine Senate.
Hancock County is proving to be a decent microcosm of Maine politics in 2022. The popular Acadia National Park is the center of the area’s tourism economy, while Stonington is the largest port in a lobster industry threatened by federal regulations and climate change. It makes state and national issues from inflation to an acute housing crisis particularly important here.
President Joe Biden is beset by low approval in a reelection year for Gov. Janet Mills, making this month’s Langley-Grohoski race a testing ground for Republican messaging. But Democrats are swamping them so far here by spending $200,000 to boost Grohoski, according to filings with the state’s ethics regulator. That is compared to a modest $23,000 from Republicans.
It has paid off early on in one way: More than 1,300 registered Democrats had requested absentee ballots in the district compared with 216 Republicans, according to Friday data from the Secretary of State’s office. While Democrats always vote absentee in greater numbers than Republicans, wide gaps like this typically mean danger for the lagging party.
Democrats have needed to get Grohoski’s name out in the sprawling district that Langley, who also owns the Union River Lobster Pot in downtown Ellsworth, represented until 2018. While a Republican adviser said some voters thought Langley was still a senator, Grohoski is less well-known outside of her House district in Ellsworth and Trenton.
“Outside of the immediate area, people had not heard of Nicole,” said Jane Ham of Ellsworth, a volunteer for Grohoski’s campaign, who pitches voters she is canvassing on the second-term lawmaker’s accessibility.
Langley, who used to work as a culinary teacher in a technical school, focuses his pitch to voters on ensuring that young people can access educational and job opportunities that allow them to stay in Maine.
That resonates with voters like Kerry McKim of Surry, a volunteer for his campaign. A widowed mother of a 7 ½-year-old, McKim wants her daughter to have the option of staying in Maine. She feels the pinch of inflation at Hannaford with her daughter.
“I find myself not letting her pick things out like I did before,” McKim said.
Housing is a particular issue in Hancock County, where seasonal tourism has long challenged a market stretched further by the pandemic. Carl Lusby, a real estate agent, whose Ellsworth home Langley visited as part of a Saturday canvassing operation, has had a front-row seat to the prices challenging first-time home buyers.
“We need to work on that,” he told Langley in the yard outside Lusby’s home.
The former state senator concurred, telling a story about his 20-year-old grandson, who recently found a job that pays $20 hourly after graduating from community college but is struggling to find housing.
Housing is among the issues where Grohoski points to Democratic-led efforts, including a housing reform bill sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, that passed along mostly partisan lines. She highlights other measures aimed at property tax relief and boosting recycling and a law banning use of a bee-killing pesticide, which Grohoski said she sponsored after hearing about the issue from constituents.
She still sees more work to be done. While Grohoski ultimately supported a revised version of Gov. Janet Mills’ bill that would fine utilities if they fail to meet certain performance standards, she has been among strongest proponents in the Legislature of a consumer-owned utility.
With gas prices setting new records nearly every day, Republicans have hammered Grohoski on a 2019 carbon tax bill that she cosponsored, noting it would have raised gas prices and branding her “Gas Tax Grohoski.” Democrats note that Grohoski voted to kill the bill in committee despite initially backing it.
“It’s interesting to me that because we have passed literally no taxes and in fact we’ve been focused on tax relief, the opposition is now fabricating taxes to fit into a narrative,” Grohoski said in an interview.
There are also factors that make the election less useful as a guide for the fall. Turnout may be low. Both Republicans and Democrats said a large part of their work in the race has been in simply informing voters that there is a special election on a day typically reserved for primaries.
Green candidate Ben Meikeljohn is also on the ballot for the June election but will not be in November. The special election also uses the old Maine Senate maps from the past decade, while the November election uses redistricted maps. District 7 will get slightly friendlier toward Democrats, dropping conservative-leaning towns in eastern Hancock County for more liberal ones on the Blue Hill peninsula.
That means the blue-and-yellow signs that will come down after the special election will go back up this fall in new places.
After Langley spoke with the Lusbys on Saturday, they assured him he had their vote. So the former senator planned to trek back to the Republican headquarters in Ellsworth and pick up a sign for them, making their home on a quiet street a reminder that all can vote on June 14.
“That’s what you do,” he said.