After spending more than $20 per vote, Maine Democrats eked out a 3 percentage point victory in Tuesday’s special election for Senate District 19.
The race pitted former Republican State Sen. Paula Benoit of Phippsburg against Arrowsic Democrat Eloise Vitelli. Both women were vying to replace former Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, who resigned halfway through his term for a job with the U.S. Small Business Administration. Daniel Stromgren of Topsham ran as a Green Independent Party candidate, grabbing just 357 votes. Vitelli garnered 4,621 votes, while Benoit collected 4,339.
From the outset of the special election, the Democrats’ strategy was to turn the election into a referendum on Republican Gov. Paul R. LePage. And although Democratic leaders were quick to claim a triumphant victory last night and early this morning, the numbers themselves should provide cause for concern.
As of last Friday, Democrats and Maine’s political left had spent more than $96,000 on Vitelli’s campaign – that’s $20.77 per vote—quite a price tag to defend a seat in liberal southern Maine that has been held by Democrats since 2008. Republicans and their allies, by comparison, spent less than $51,000 – or $11.75 per vote. Both candidates funded their campaigns with more than $36,000 in taxpayer money via the unpopular Maine Clean Elections Act, while Party committees and other political spenders chipped in the rest.
Vitelli’s victory by less than 3 percent is a far cry from Goodall’s victory in 2012 over Republican Jefferey K. Dresden. In that race, Goodall netted 13,445 votes to Dresden’s 7,623. While Vitelli was certainly running uphill against Benoit’s higher name recognition, there is no question that her win was a pyrrhic victory for Democrats. The race likely foreshadows the contest that will occur in the November 2014 elections, where higher levels of voter turnout could dramatically alter the results.
The election is bittersweet news for Democrats, but the other narrative is the abject hypocrisy of the so-called clean elections program. While the ostensible intent of offering taxpayer funding to political candidates is to limit the impact of outside money, the District 19 race shows that the program is failing utterly. Despite both candidates accepting taxpayer funding for their candidacies, both were bolstered by outside spending. In Vitelli’s case, outside spending nearly doubled her taxpayer funding.