AUGUSTA – This year’s Democratic and Republican nomination battles in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District strikingly recall the crowded contests for the same two prizes eight years ago when the seat was last left open by a departing incumbent.
Memories of close finishes in both of the 1994 multicandidate races can only heighten anxiety for the current crop of congressional aspirants in the closing days of the 2002 campaign.
A review of the numbers from the 1994 voting also should prompt caution among forecasters trying to divine the outcome of next Tuesday’s party primary elections.
“For comparison, it’s probably the most similar year,” says Secretary of State Dan Gwadosky.
Vying for the Democratic nod this year are six hopefuls: state Sens. Michael Michaud of East Millinocket, Susan Longley of Liberty and John Nutting of Leeds, former legislator Sean Faircloth of Bangor, educator Lori Handrahan of Sorrento and former foreign aid worker David Costello of Lewiston.
The Republican field numbers four: former congressional aide Kevin Raye of Perry, state Rep. Stavros Mendros of Lewiston, former state legislator Dick Campbell of Orrington and Tim Woodcock, a former Bangor mayor.
In the 1994 primaries, Democratic and Republican turnouts in the district were 44,293 and 39,838, respectively.
The victors built narrow winning margins and analysts say geography played a major role.
“There was a lot of regional strength – candidates were particularly strong in their own regions,” Gwadosky said Thursday.
Democrat John Baldacci of Bangor won his party’s designation with 12,091 votes, while Republican Richard Bennett of Norway captured the GOP nod with 11,734 votes.
In taking the Democratic nomination, Baldacci garnered 27.3 percent of the vote. Runner-up James Mitchell of Bangor took 22.6 percent and third-place finisher Janet Mills of Wilton won 17.7 percent.
James Howaniec of Lewiston came in fourth with 14.2 percent ahead of Mary Cathcart of Orono, who received 12.6 percent.
Jean Hay of Blue Hill mustered 4.6 percent and Shawn Hallisey of Machiasport recorded 0.9 percent.
On the Republican side, Bennett secured 29.5 percent of the vote. Trailing him were Stephen Zirnkilton of Mount Desert with 26.4 percent, Glenn Thomas MacNaughton of Greenville with 25.2 percent and Hollis Greenlaw of Fairfield with 19 percent. Eight years later, Baldacci is concluding a fourth term in the U.S. House of Representatives as the successor to Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and now is running for governor. Bennett, who scrapped a second campaign for Congress last summer, is president of the state Senate.
“I think it’s an open question at this point on both sides,” Bennett said this week in assessing the current races. “If you can do reasonably well everywhere and then turn out your base, if you have one in overwhelming numbers, it can do wonderful things,” Bennett said.
Gwadosky, a Democrat and former state House speaker from Fairfield who abandoned his own consideration of a congressional campaign last summer, says more money this time around introduces a new dynamic.
First of all, he suggests, more spending on media advertising could buoy voter turnout by stimulating interest in the campaigns and making the contestants more familiar to potential backers.
For individual candidates starting out with lesser name recognition or defined pockets of support, he adds, more money could effectively allow them to spend their way into contention.
“What we don’t see is the organizational level behind that,” Gwadosky said.
Bennett said primary contests can strengthen parties and victorious candidates in the long run, but may not seem to at the time.
“It is true, but nobody involved in it would ever admit to it while it’s happening,” he said.