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Battle Begins in Maine for Open State Senate Seat
07/24/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Democratic and Republican leaders are gearing up for a showdown in Sagadahoc County, where a three-way race is underway to fill an open state Senate seat. Former Democratic state Sen. Seth Goodall, of Richmond, resigned this month to accept a position with the Small Business Administration, and a special election has been scheduled for Aug. 27. Republicans are eager to improve their minority numbers in the Senate, but special elections tend to favor Democrats who have an aggressive get-out-the vote record. A.J. Higgins reports.

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Battle Begins in Maine for Open State Senate Seat
Originally Aired: 7/24/2013 5:30 PM

Encompassing all of Sagadahoc County, and one community in Lincoln County, Senate District 19 has a reputation for sending moderates to the Legislature. In fact, one former state senator from the region started off as a Republican and then changed parties to become a Democrat.

Later, former State Sen. Seth Goodall narrowly defeated incumbent Republican state Sen. Paula Benoit to win the district in 2008. Now that Goodall has resigned to take a job with the SBA, Benoit has re-emerged to run for the open seat. Incoming state GOP Chair Rick Bennett says the stakes are high for his party to try to increase its 15-seat minority in the Maine Senate.

"I do think that this is a Democratic seat, and it's the Democrat's to lose," Bennett says. "This will be competitive. There's a lot of energy on the Republican side. We will compete there actively."

Among Democrats, state Chair Ben Grant says there's a different perspective: The seat has, more often than not, been claimed by a Republican. Still, Grant acknowledges that Sagadahoc County voted for President Barack Obama in recent elections and its entire House delegation is currently Democratic.

"But that's just a recent development," Grant says. "So we're not taking anything for granted. We view this as a toss-up seat."

This year there will also be a Green Independent Party candidate in the race. Efforts to reach Daniel Stromgren, a Topsham social worker, were unsuccessful, but party representatives and election watchers agree his candidacy will add an interesting dynamic to the race that could undercut support for Democrat Eloise Vitelli.

Vitelli, of Arrowsic, directs a women's career program, and says voters tend to be more concerned with what a candidate brings to the job rather than political affiliation. She says that means a state senator who is focused on jobs, the economy and the desire to build a better future for the state.

"So that's what I think our district is looking for, that's what I think I'll be able to bring," Vitelli says. "I think it's less critical, or less, sort of, in people's mindsets, where you fall on the political spectrum."

Vitelli's Republican opponent in the race is Paula Benoit, who held the District 19 seat for a single legislative term, beginning in 2007. Benoit shares Vitelli's assessment of what voters in District 19 want, and says she's already demonstrated her ability to work in bipartisan fashion - particularly with the enactment of some significant adoption reform legislation.

"I was well respected and well liked when I was in the Senate on both sides of the aisle," Benoit says. "I mean, you were there and you saw what happened with the adoption legislation - that could not have passed if I had not worked on that. And I had to reach across the aisle to get Democrats on board with it. They were in the majority all the way through."

As in all elections, the side that can get the largest number of their base to the polls has the edge, and MaryEllen FitzGerald, of the Critical Insights Marketing Group, says at first glance, the small turnout expected in the Aug. 27 special election bodes well for Democrats.

"I mean, the Democratic get-out-the-vote machine is really very powerful and pretty much unrivaled, so that does auger well for the Democrats," FitzGerald says. "But there's a lot of pressure on Republicans, so this one could go either way."

In an effort to help district voters get a better handle on the candidates, Bob Mentzinger, managing editor of the Brunswick Times Record, says his paper - in association with Radio 9 WCME - will hold a public debate among the candidates at 6 p.m. on Aug. 23, at the Topsham Municipal Building.

"It's a very important election, and it might not be very well known," Mentzinger says. "It might not be one of those Nov. 6 Election Days that people are really tuned in to, so we want to try and wake people up to the fact that there's going to be an election at the end of August that will make quite a difference in the Legislature, probably."

Unlike several legislative contests held in 2010, election watchers do not expect the District 19 race to become a big money event, with state parties investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the outcome.


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