It’s hard running in a swing district. Try running in a stronghold for the other side.
While many battleground seats in this year’s legislative election are in areas with mixed politics, there are more seats that are firmly red or blue, including in communities where 80 percent or more of voters went for either President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump in 2020.
While the opposition party doesn’t field candidates in some of those seats, others still take the plunge and run an uphill campaign. With or without name recognition, longshots may stress moderation. Others stick to their guns and argue forcefully.
In the first category is Democrat Kevin Ritchie of Lee, who spent decades as a teacher and administrator at Lee Academy and got into a Maine House race in a conservative district against Rep. Tracy Quint, R-Hodgdon.
He remembers a time when Democrats had far more of a presence in his rural district, which takes around an hour and a half to drive north to south, especially due to unions. Many of those voters either moved or died after the mills shut down, and local economic development became largely moribund.
Ritchie calls himself no firm partisan, tending to be “kind of practical.” He has made small business development, enlarging technical education and increasing high-speed internet to spur growth in remote work the biggest priorities of his campaign.
“If we could get three to six businesses in this district that employ anywhere from 10 to 25 people, that’s significant,” Ritchie said.
After 1,400 to 1,500 conversations while out canvassing, Ritchie said he believes he has a 50-50 shot. That is optimistic. As of June, House District 8 had more Republican voters than all districts but four others, and there were 1,600 fewer Democrats among just under 6,900 voters.
Even if he does not win, Ritchie is hopeful that his work has humanized a Democratic candidate. He has shown two elderly couples how to receive their $850 checks from the state. While he has had “healthy arguments,” they have been on policy and ideology.
“The vast majority of the conversations have been civil and pleasant,” he said.
Running in districts that lean heavily one way or another is inherently difficult: Your chance of victory is low, which makes it harder to convince voters that they should go with you.
Outside circumstances can help: In 2020, Rep. Richard Evans, D-Dover Foxcroft, won his seat with only 36 percent of votes in a three-way race featuring Republican Chad Perkins and an independent incumbent who once served as a Republican. The win handed a Trump district to Democrats. Evans has a harder time alone on the ballot with Perkins this year.
In southern Maine, two Republicans are taking different approaches. Annie Christy, a Republican running in a House district covering most of Cape Elizabeth, billed herself as a centrist who supports abortion rights and environmental protection. But Susan Abercrombie, a retired information technology specialist, is running a campaign of personal responsibility and small government.
Abercrombie’s race against Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, is her fourth legislative contest in Maine’s most heavily Democratic area. Her best finish was a 2016 House campaign in which she won nearly 27 percent of votes. Only 15 percent of the voters in Chipman’s district are Republicans.
She is running her campaign just as she would in a politically mixed district, noting that she takes stances most in Portland oppose, such as a restriction on abortions after the first trimester — around week 13 — with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.
“Be straightforward and say what you think,” Abercrombie said. “I don’t mean stand up and walk out — stand up and say, ‘Excuse me, that’s wrong’ and then say why.”
Abercrombie said while Portland is unfriendly to conservatives, she wanted to make sure voters had a choice. The city still has more than 6,800 registered Republican voters, more than all of those in red Piscataquis County.
“I’d love to get 51 [percent], but realistically it’s not going to happen,” Abercrombie said. “But at least there will have been an alternative to Ben Chipman on the ballot.”