Big win in state Senate special election buoys Democrats

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Jun. 15—Democrats here and nationally reveled Wednesday after one of their own easily won the state's only head-to-head race between major party candidates on Tuesday.

Two-term Democratic state Rep. Nicole Grohoski won the state Senate District 7 seat in Hancock County with 64 percent of the vote against Republican Brian Langley, a local business owner who held the Senate seat from 2010 to 2018, when he termed out.

The national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee hailed Grohoski's win as a "tremendous victory" and said Maine's House and Senate races are "top targets" in the fall general election.

But Republicans dismissed the defeat as a "low stakes" race that in no way indicates what will happen in November.

"DC progressive Democrats dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into a Hail Mary effort in this majority-Democrat district," Senate Republican Leader Jeffrey Timberlake, of Turner, said in a written statement. "We're playing to win in November because that's how we'll stop Democrats from raising Mainers' costs at every turn."

Grohoski will replace fellow Democrat Louis Luchini, who resigned to work for the U.S. Small Business Administration, in what has been a swing district seat. Grohoski and Langley will face off again this fall, when they compete for a full term in the Senate.

Even though Grohoski is unlikely to cast a single vote as a result of her win, the race was closely watched because the seat has been won by Democrats and Republicans in the past and was seen as a way to test each side's campaign messaging ahead of November. Republicans are blaming Democrats and Gov. Janet Mills for record-high inflation — a problem globally — and Democrats are warning voters that Republicans could attack abortion rights and roll back progress made over the last four years.

Democrats invested heavily in the special election race, which they said was needed to build momentum for the general election in November. The party, which controls the Blaine House and both legislative chambers, is expected to face major headwinds because of inflation and the unpopularity of Democratic President Biden.

The Maine Democratic Party spent more than $216,000 in support of Grohoski, while the Maine Republican Party and the Maine Senate Republican Majority spent about $30,000 combined, including more than $8,300 in opposition to Grohoski.

Grohoski's campaign spent about $64,000, compared to Langley's $34,000.

Mark Brewer, professor and department chair of the political science at the University of Maine, Orono, was surprised by Grohoski's nearly 2-1 margin of victory in the low-turnout special election.

"That's pretty big margin in a district (Langley) held not too long ago," Brewer said. "Everybody thought that was going to be a close race, myself included."

Republicans leaned into the argument that Democrats are making inflation and gas prices worse. They dubbed Langley's opponent "Gas tax Grohoski" because she co-sponsored a bill that would have charged a fee on carbon pollution, which was expected to raise the cost of gas, oil and propane. The measure was killed by the Energy and Utilities Committee, of which Grohoski is a member.

That attack doesn't appear to have resonated with voters, at least during the special election.

Brewer said it's difficult to draw too many conclusions from the special election, or say what lesson it may offer to the campaigns of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills or former Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

"I don't know that I would want to chalk up all of it to a difference in spending," he said. "Without polling it's hard to say what if anything has to do with differences in messaging."

He added, "If I were Janet Mills and the Democrats, I'd feel a hell of a lot better about it than if I were Paul LePage and the Republicans."

LePage's campaign strategist, Brent Littlefield, declined to comment on the special election and whether it was an indication that their attempts to tie Mills to Biden and inflation is falling flat with voters.

Mills campaign manager Alexandra Raposo did not directly address the question either.

"The governor will do what she's always done — work hard to earn every vote and to show Maine people that she is the best candidate to bring Democrats, Republicans and independents together to tackle the challenges Maine people are facing," Raposo said. "From expanding health care, to investing in education, to delivering one of the strongest inflation relief proposals in the country, the governor will campaign on her record and is determined to build on the progress we have made and to move Maine forward."

Even though they lost the special election, Maine GOP Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas claimed that voters "rejected Janet Mills' and Joe Biden's agenda" and Maine GOP Executive Director Jason Savage said, "it's obvious that Mainers are ready for change."

Neither Savage, nor party spokesperson Riley Ploch, responded to an interview request to discuss the election.

Democrats, meanwhile, celebrated the victory.

The national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee hailed Grohoski's win as "tremendous victory" for a "highly competitive seat," adding that Maine's House and Senate races are "top targets" this year. The group said it invested $65,000 in the race, and provided critical political and communication guidance, strategic planning, data analysis, and other field and organizing support.

"(Grohoski) overcame a popular Republican candidate and false attacks about her record by knocking on doors, meeting directly with voters, and making her case for affordable and reliable energy, affordable health care, and quality schools," DLCC Executive Director Heather Williams said. "Nicole will deliver positive results for Hancock County in the state Senate and we couldn't be happier that there will be a historic number of women in the Maine Senate Democratic caucus."

Emily's List, which helps elect Democratic, pro-choice women, applauded Grohoski as "a proven fighter for reproductive choice, education, good jobs, and accessible health care" and described the race as "crucial to holding the Democratic majority."

Gaetan Davis, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party, used the victory to push back against the narrative that Democrats lack enthusiasm this year.

"Nicole Grohoski ran an outstanding campaign. Her victory is due in a large part to the dozens of Democratic activists who came out to enthusiastically support her candidacy," Davis said in a written statement. "It's clear that Mainers want compassionate leaders with a history of delivering results for working families. The GOP sought to distort and lie about Senator-elect Grohoski's record, but voters weren't fooled. We are fortunate to have her voice in Augusta."