Tom Richendollar of Dedham fills a fuel container at Tradewinds in Eddington on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, in case of a power outage from Hurricane Lee. (Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN)

A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.

A storm is bearing down, kicking Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power into overdrive, staging crews and sending spokespeople out to blanket the media with preparation plans and the best ways to report outages.

Hurricane Lee may be the most political storm that Maine has seen in a long time. That’s because the major utilities are preparing for the weather in a fight for their businesses. The storm comes in the heat of the campaign over Question 3, which would create a new elected board charged with buying out their infrastructure and running the electric delivery system.

What they’re saying: The yes side of that campaign, led by the political group Our Power, will be watching closely. One theme of its messaging so far has been pouncing on big weather events. It issued a news release after 20,000 people in southern Maine were hit with outages during thunderstorms last weekend,   noting the state’s record of having the nation’s worst outages.

“Pine Tree Power is poised to lead the charge in building the infrastructure of tomorrow,” Al Cleveland, the group’s campaign manager, said in a statement.

The outage line is predictable, yet the facts behind it are completely unknown. Our Power’s argument is that reliability and customer service would improve if profit was removed from the equation and board members were accountable to voters. However, Public Advocate William Harwood’s office noted in a fact sheet last week that a new utility may not be better in these areas, saying pressure to keep costs low could negatively affect reliability.

At a one-sided Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce event against the referendum on Thursday, Jim Cohen, a utility lawyer working with CMP’s political arm, said falling trees and branches cause 87 percent of outages here, according to the Portland Press Herald. Utility takeover supporters protested the event outside.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s CMP or Versant or Pine Tree Power or anyone else,” Cohen said, according to the newspaper. “It will still be trees. It will still ice over in the winter. It will still fall on lines.”

The context: Outages are a virtual lock over the weekend. Lee is expected to hit Maine on Saturday. CMP is bringing in hundreds of crews from out of state and staging them in the coastal areas expected to be hit the hardest, while Versant is making similar preparations and gave a safety demonstration on WVII this morning.

CMP won plaudits for its response to the ice storm of 1998, but many of its reputation troubles can be traced back to a massive 2017 windstorm. After that, customer service and billing complaints resulted in penalties and scrutiny following the utility into Maine’s 2021 vote against its hydropower corridor.

What’s next: Given that history, a lot is riding on the utilities’ responses to Lee. It will be scrutinized by the opposition, but any weaknesses will also be explored from different angles by politicians and the media. The storm will have implications from Maine homes all the way to the ballot box.

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...