Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, and Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, are the candidates for the special election in Maine's Senate District 7. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine voters across the state have the chance to determine which candidates will advance to the general election in key primaries across the state on Tuesday, even as the state’s highest profile candidates are running unopposed.

Those races are taking place in what is expected to be a challenging year for Democrats looking to hold off a midterm sweep by Republicans. Inflation, high gas prices and President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings could all contribute to turnover nationally. But Maine Democrats have led in early voting and spending in big races so far this year.

Here are four storylines to watch on Tuesday.

A bellwether in Hancock County?

Republicans and Democrats are both looking for momentum in a Hancock County special election, although the winner of Tuesday’s matchup between Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, former Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, and Green candidate Benjamin Meikeljohn is unlikely to cast a single vote this fall. Democrats have poured more than $200,000 into the race to boost Grohoski, who may be the lesser-known candidate outside of her current Maine House district, in Ellsworth and Trenton.

The district, which Langley previously represented until 2018, is a good example of the sort of district Republicans will likely need to flip if they hope to take back control of the Maine Senate this fall. Both Langley and Grohoski are on the ballot again in November under slightly new district boundaries, so the winner on Tuesday will not necessarily have the final say.

But one party will get to claim at least a moral victory.

A former congressman gets a primary challenge

For the second election year in a row, Democratic 2nd Congressional District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden faces no primary challenger for his seat. Instead, Tuesday will be about the Republican primary between former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and longshot Caratunk selectman Liz Caruso.

There is no doubt that Poliquin has the name recognition and the money to win Tuesday’s primary, but he has struggled to connect  with his base previously and is trailing Golden in fundraising. Caruso is hoping to trade on her outsider status — a common theme in Republican races — and her connection to rural Maine as a registered guide and major critic of Central Maine Power’s hydroelectric corridor project. She is also highlighting her support for hardline Republicans like Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.

Whether that’s enough to unseat an establishment candidate like Poliquin remains to be seen. The former congressman has largely refused to acknowledge Caruso as a threat, declining to debate her and focusing his campaign on his reliable gun-rights and anti-abortion record.

Things have changed slightly in recent days as Poliquin has defended himself against Caruso’s attacks and Caruso accused his campaign strategist of trying to flip her supporters after they commented on Facebook. Golden will be a tough opponent for either one to oust.

Big money finds its way to a prosecutor race

Little attention is often paid to district attorney races, despite the influence they have. A surge of more than $400,000 in Maine’s most populous county in the race between incumbent Jonathan Sahrbeck and Kennebec County prosecutor Jackie Sartoris shows that may be changing as a national trend of boosting progressive candidates comes to Maine.

Both Sartoris and Sahrbeck are Democrats, and face no Republican challenger in the November election, making this the deciding vote. But serious money has been dropped in recent years to specifically boost progressive district attorney races across the country. Some of the most high-profile spending has come from Democratic billionaire George Soros, but groups like the American Civil Liberties Union or singer John Legend have also gotten involved.

In the Cumberland County’s race, Sartoris has cited Soros’ support as a positive sign of national attention, even as she has spoken against the negative tone of his political action committee’s campaigning. A wave of campaign ads and mailers have hit the area paid for by money Sahrbeck has decried as being “dark” despite Soros being listed as the sole donor.

That support could shift the race. It could also be the start of more national influence in local races that extend beyond the typical parameters of party politics.

Primaries with implications for party control in Augusta

Many of the legislative primaries on Tuesday are in relatively safe Republican or Democratic seats. But a handful are in key purple districts that could help decide control of the Maine House and Senate later this year.

In Senate District 13, where Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, is not running for reelection, Newcastle lawyer David Levesque is facing Cameron Reny, a school counselor from Bristol, in the Democratic primary. The winner will face former Rep. Abden Simmons, R-Waldoboro, who is running unopposed in his party’s primary. The seat is one of several that Republicans will likely need to win to have a shot at taking back control of the Maine Senate this year.

Three Republicans — Rep. Mike Perkins of Oakland, Kevin Kitchin of Fairfield and Mark Andre of Oakland — are facing off in the primary in Senate District 16, which includes Waterville, Winslow, Albion, Oakland and Fairfield. The winner will face retired Waterville and Winslow Fire Chief David LaFountain, a solid recruit who is unopposed in the Democratic primary. The seat is Democrats’ best shot at adding to their Maine Senate majority.

In coastal Lincoln County, Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, who unseated an incumbent Republican in 2018, faces a challenge from Tom Moroney, also of Boothbay, in House District 48. The winner will face Tricia Warren of Boothbay Harbor in the general election. The district is among Republicans may target as they look to flip the Maine House.

Another district Republicans will target later this year is the Raymond-area House District 86. Greg Foster, a Republican who lost to Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, in both 2018 and 2020, is seeking to challenge Fay again. He first has to get through a primary against Karen Lockwood of Raymond.