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Maine Lawmakers Stampede to Qualify for Ballot in Wake of Snowe's Departure
02/29/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

At the Maine State House, the dust continues to swirl from the virtual stampede of lawmakers trying to get into the race for the U.S. Senate or Congress. They have until March 15 to collect the 2,000 signatures for the U.S. Senate, or 1,000 signatures for one of the two congressional districts.

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You'd have to go back two years ago to the night the Republicans won the majority in the Legislature to appreciate the level of frenzy currently on display at the State House. And even then, that sense of joyfulness was only shared by one party.

Sen. Olympia Snowe's decision to not seek a third term and to leave an open seat in her wake has set off a series of domino contests and what-if scenario discussions that has eclipsed all other legislative discussions.

"It's almost like opening a safe," says state Sen. Debra Plowman. "As things go along, the tumblers are going to start tumbling and falling into place and you'll see people very quickly working their way over the Secretary of State's Office, signing our papers."

Plowman should know. Moments after speaking with MPBN, the Hampden Republican took out nominating papers for the 2nd Congressional District. Plowman was anticipating that Democratic incumbent Michael Michaud would start circulating nomination papers for the U.S. Senate. And she was right. He did.

Now there are no fewer than seven sitting members of the Legislature who are actively weighing entering either the Senate or a congressional race. And Plowman says the clock is ticking. "We've a very short amount of time left in session, there won't be time for people who are running, they won't be able to be as engaged in getting those signatures, it's going to have to fall to volunteers, absolutely," Plowman says.

Having an organization in place makes it easier for some lawmakers, such as state Rep. John Hinck, to switch gears. A Portland Democrat who had previously announced a bid for the U.S. Senate, Hinck says he will now run for the 1st Congressional District.

Taking out nomination papers does not necessarily mean that any of the individuals will run, but it does preserve their options. With Michaud already signaling interest, along with former Democratic Maine Gov. John Baldacci and 1st Congressional District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, Hinck wonders whether a bruising primary might have catastrophic consequences for his party if a Republican or independent joined the fray and siphoned off enough votes to win.

Former Gov, Angus King is said to be considering a run, as is former unsuccessful independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler. The thought that Democrats could potentially lose both congressional seats they have sucessfully defended in prior elections or even lose the Senate is hardly reassuring for Hinck.

"It could be a concern," Hinck says. "I think they need to remain focused on getting as much done as possible and giving up every seat to run for a higher one may not be the best way to go."

But House Minority Leader Emily Cain disagrees. The Orono Democrat has decided that she will abandon her plans to run for the state Senate and instead seek out Michaud's seat if he, in fact, does decide to enter the race. Because Mainers tend to return the members of their Congressional delegation to office over repeated election cycles, Cain says candidates who can actually meet the threshold to qualify to run almost have an obligation to do so.

"When a seat like this opens up, if potentially viable people are don't consider it, than they're doing a disservice to the people of Maine," Cain says.

One lawmaker who might be wrestling with his decision more than any other is Maine Senate President Kevin Raye. The Perry Republican had planned on running against Michaud this fall for the 2nd Congressional District seat. But Raye, a former chief of staff to Olympia Snowe, may now have to choose against running a campaign for the 2nd District where he is well known, or throwing his hat in the Senate race where the outcome is, at the moment, anything but clear.

"At this moment I have secured the necessary signatures to run in the 2nd District and I am assessing and I will decide in very short order if I will now begin a signature-gathering effort in the United States Senate race," Raye says.

Other lawmakers weighing either Senate or congressional bids include: Sen. Jonathan Courtney, of Sanford; Sen. Cynthia Dill, of Cape Elizabeth; Sen. Phil Bartlett, of Gorham and state Rep. Seth Berry, of Bowdoinham.


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