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.
With less than two months before Election Day, it looks like many Mainers are undecided on the utility takeover referendum that is the most sweeping one of the eight questions on the ballot.
There have been no public or independent polls released so far on these questions. On Thursday, we got the first survey, although it was paid for by a political group run by Versant Power, one of the two utilities along with Central Maine Power Co. that is fighting Question 3.
I’m always reluctant to amplify internal polls like this, but there are some informative lessons in the data that say something about why the campaign looks the way it does. The main one is that Democrats are the key battleground here, which is one reason why you see both sides focusing on them.
The context: Maine Energy Progress, Versant’s political group, only released a set of questions and an accompanying memo from pollster Hans Kaiser, known in political circles as a longtime opinion guru for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. The group refused to release crosstabs, which we provide on our polls for transparency. Also, campaigns only release polling when it serves them.
For these reasons, I’m not going to discuss many of the specific figures here. But Versant interestingly surveyed all four of the citizen initiatives on the ballot, finding that a slim majority of Maine voters are leaning against Question 3. The yes side was only in the low 30s with a high share of undecided voters.
This is often what referendum campaigns look like before public opinion is fully baked. Maine voters rejected a gun background check expansion in 2016, but one survey done at this time that year showed the yes side above 60 percent. The wheels fell off for them later after gun-rights groups poked holes in the limited exceptions allowed under the proposal.
Split on the left: While there is time for the yes side, represented by the political group Our Power, the Versant survey was ominous for them. It showed Democrats evenly split on Question 3, while Republicans were leaning against replacing CMP and Versant with an elected board.
We have seen examples of this split. Legislative Democrats were able to send a bill similar to Question 3 to Gov. Janet Mills’ desk in 2021. She vetoed it then and opposes the referendum now, while the only high-profile Republican politician in favor of the measure is moderate Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford, who also opposed the CMP corridor and is a major utility critic.
The utilities have fanned out to pay lots of Maine politicians to represent them. But we have mostly seen Democrats at the front of the campaign. Willy Ritch, a former spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District, is running CMP’s political group. Former Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, will represent it at a League of Women Voters forum soon in Augusta.
What’s next: Expect to continue seeing Democrats at the front of this campaign. Our Power needs to lock them down, while the utilities are trying to keep their support from both sides of the electorate. But there is still time for all of this to change.