Obama endorsements, spending spikes highlight high-stakes Maine races

Good morning from Augusta, where ever-increasing outside spending and a new round of Democratic endorsements from former President Barack Obama are helping to light up battlegrounds on the map in the race for control of the Maine Legislature.

Outside groups have spent nearly $4 million in state races so far, with more than $3.4 million of that going into the governor’s race. But the targeting in legislative races has begun — particularly among Democrats who want expand a lead in the House of Representatives and take the Senate, which Republicans control by just one seat.

The early Senate battlegrounds are predictable — with perhaps one exception in the early going. The hottest Maine Senate race so far is centered on Auburn, where Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, is facing Democratic physician Ned Claxton of Auburn. Groups have already sunk nearly $65,000 into the race.

The next big-ticket races are in Kennebec County — one in a Waterville-area district between state Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, and former state Rep. Karen Kusiak, D-Fairfield, that has seen $45,000 in outside spending and one on the outskirts of Augusta between Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, and Republican Matt Stone of West Gardiner that has seen $44,000.

That latter race is a bit of a surprise, since other Senate swing districts have gotten more attention, like the races between Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, and former state Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, and House Majority Leader Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, and former state Rep. Jayne Crosby Giles, R-Belfast.

Stone grew up in Litchfield, but he ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat out of Biddeford two years ago. But many Republicans are bullish on the seat that was long held by Republicans before Bellows took it in a three-way race in 2016. Democrats are spending like they’re a bit worried, throwing in nearly all of that total so far.

Democrats are targeting other districts that haven’t been in play for a while, including an open seat in York County being contested by Rep. Robert Foley, R-Wells, and former state Rep. Thomas Wright, D-Berwick. Wright and Kusiak got new Obama endorsements on Monday.

The former president’s Maine endorsements were also focused on House races, where it’s harder to gauge the map so far. In southern Maine seats where Democrats hope the national environment will help them in 2018, Obama endorsements included Diane Denk of Kennebunk, Tiffany Roberts-Lovell of South Berwick and Chris Caiazzo of Scarborough, who are running open-seat races against Republicans Roger Seavey of Kennebunkport, Manley Gove of North Berwick and former House Minority Leader Linwood Higgins of Scarborough, respectively.

Obama also waded into some difficult districts. One was through his endorsement of Democrat Chloe Maxmin of Nobleboro in an open-seat race in Kennebec and Lincoln counties with Republican Michael Lemelin of Chelsea in a seat held for eight years by a Republican.

As outside spending rises in these races, we’ll be able to gauge the map better. The Obama endorsements shouldn’t be seen as news on their own, but a set of priorities for his party that include a mix of attainable and aspirational seats.

LePage blames referendums for widening structural gap

The governor is leaving a budget roadmap for his successor and his take on the structural gap was an extension of that. Gov. Paul LePage’s budget department issued a Monday statement saying the state will face a $504 million structural gap to be handled when Maine’s next governor and the new Legislature get to Augusta in January. It would be the biggest gap that officials have faced since 2013 while crafting a new two-year budget.

The LePage administration blamed three items for driving the impending gap — unfunded but voter-approved Medicaid expansion, a scheduled increase in municipal revenue sharing and the state’s voter-approved goal of funding 55 percent of essential K-12 education costs.

These assumptions will be baked into a draft budget that the governor’s office has said he’ll leave for his successor. However, the gap estimate may be high, because it cites a $180 million cost estimate for expansion that is higher than an estimate from the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal office that assumes some savings where the LePage administration assumes none.

LePage wants to protect income tax cuts ushered in during his administration. In a statement, he blamed the growth in the gap on referendums passed without funding sources and “the Legislature’s love of spending and failure to act on responsibly paying for Medicaid expansion.”

However, Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, the co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee, noted that the governor vetoed a legislative plan to fund expansion and the state had a reserve fund of $273 million as of June that will factor into 2019 budget discussions.

“We’ve been fighting in the Maine Legislature to fund these things,” Gattine said. “These are things that the people of Maine want us to fund.”

Reading list

  • Maine’s senior senator had input on the scope of a new FBI investigation of the president’s Supreme Court nominee. Amid concerns from Democrats and advocates for sexual assault survivors that the investigation would be so narrow as to whitewash sexual assault allegations against nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the White House consulted with Sen. Susan Collins about expanding the investigation. But with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Collins’ other Republican colleagues pushing for a vote this week, “it is still her understanding that the work will still be completed in the original one-week timeline,” Collins spokeswoman Annie Clark said Monday afternoon. Collins is one of three GOP senators who remain undecided about whether to support Kavanaugh. The other two are Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, who called for the FBI probe.
  • Maine Republicans got the cheer a Trump — for a price — in Portland. Donald Trump Jr. headlined a GOP fundraiser Monday night at the Holiday Inn by the Bay. Attending the private event with LePage were U.S. Senate candidate Eric Brakey and 1st Congressional District candidate Mark Holbrook. The latter two are distinct underdogs, but should get a boost from the campaign cash that the president’s eldest son helped raise. Notably absent were Republican gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin. Those Republicans in Maine’s highest profile electoral contests this year had prior commitments, according to a spokesman.
  • Bath Iron Works keeps finishing second in two-way contests with its chief competitor. Is it simply a case of a much bigger Goliath — Huntington Ingalls Industries of Mississippi — overwhelming the shipbuilding version of David in Maine? Or are the second-place finishes — most recently in contract awards to build a new round of destroyers for the Navy — due to festering problems in Bath? Mike Keenan, president of the largest union at the yard, didn’t hold back in expressing what he believes must be done to make BIW more competitive.
  • The federal government gave Maine another extension to comply with stricter driver’s license identification mandates. The latest waiver gives state officials more time to implement the 13-year-old Real ID law. The waiver is valid through Oct. 10, 2019, but Homeland Security will not enforce Real ID until Oct. 1, 2020. Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap requested the waiver in August. Maine driver’s licenses will continue to be accepted as valid identification for entrance into certain secure federal facilities, such as military bases, Homeland Security headquarters and nuclear plants, as well as for boarding commercial aircraft for domestic flights. The Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles will issue Real ID-compliant licenses and identification starting next July. Mainers who want to apply for a Real ID license will need to provide a birth certificate or other proof of legal residency, and submit to a photograph taken with facial recognition technology.
  • A Maine town’s upcoming vote on infrastructure upgrades is basically a referendum on whether it wants to grow. Bridgton voters will decide three local ballot questions in November that could unlock more than $11 million in state and federal aid. But the town would have to come up with about that much money from other sources to cover overall costs. The portion not funded by grants would be paid for by bonds or notes issued in the name of the town of Bridgton. A spokesperson for a senior living complex developer said plans for a campus in Bridgton cannot move forward unless voters agree to pay for an upgrade to the town’s wastewater system. The scenario offers an interesting example of the relationship between local control, Maine’s sagging infrastructure and ground-level economic development challenges.

Get ready for Maine’s 200th birthday

Can Maine throw a good party? In about 15 months, we’re gonna find out.

The Pine Tree State turns 200 in 2020, so plans for a bicentennial bash are revving up. A bicentennial commission chaired by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, will unveil the official bicentennial logo — please tell me it was designed by O’Chang — and slogan — “We’re still wicked pissed at you, Massachusetts” —  this morning.

The commission offers this poignant rationale for the celebration:

Maine’s 200th anniversary of statehood is an important milestone that allows us to reflect on who we are as a state. We will be seeking to encourage Maine individuals and organizations to get involved by incorporating the bicentennial theme into the events, goods and services they already offer, asking Maine corporations to help “lead the way” by sponsoring bicentennial efforts, and welcoming visitors to enjoy Maine culture and identity with us. Maine’s bicentennial is a perfect time for us all to commemorate our past, celebrate our present, and take a view toward the future.

There’s already a website, which you can see here.

But we’re going to need a bicentennial beverage. Sorry, Alex Acquisto, but the early frontrunner has to be some kind of cocktail involving Moxie and multiple flavored brandies.

And we will surely need a bicentennial song. Send in your suggestions. In the meantime, here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at aacquisto@bangordailynews.com, mshepherd@bangordailynews.com or rlong@bangordailynews.com.

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.