Why Eloise Vitelli won in SD 19 (and why the GOP won't run moderates)

Posted Wednesday, August 28, 2013 in Politics

Why Eloise Vitelli won in SD 19 (and why the GOP won't run moderates)

by Gina Hamilton

The New Maine Times does not do endorsements by federal law, nor would we want to, since we believe it's up to you to decide.  I am an employee of another newspaper that does, however, and that paper endorsed Paula Benoit, R-Phippsburg, who lost in Tuesday's special election for the seat vacated by Seth Goodall, D-Richmond.

Part of the reason the Times Record endorsed her, and oh, my children, I was part of that process, was that Benoit is in fact a moderate Republican.  She is, in fact, pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-education. When everything crashes down, like it did in 2010, if you are the crashee party and you don't have moderates across the aisle, we get what we got - pushback on every social compact issue there is in our state, and a scary executive who will push them to push ever harder. 

If it hadn't been for a thin reddish line of moderate Republicans, the damage could have been incalculable and long-lasting.  As it is, it was bad enough.

However, our endorsement, though possibly a pleasant surprise to Benoit, didn't make much of a difference one way or the other, I suspect.

To understand why Eloise Vitelli won, and why Democrats will continue to win contested seats like this and like the Lincoln County senate seat, recently won by Chris Johnson, you have to first understand how the demographics are shifting in Maine, and not just midcoastal Maine, but other areas too.

And then you pull out the dog-eared political playbook, and you follow the rules.

First, a little bit of background on this particular seat.  It was held by another moderate Republican, Art Mayo.  Everyone knew and loved Art, he was the local undertaker, and always did a good job for grieving families. He was a stand-up guy, with a stand-up liberal-leaning wife, who could be counted on to be the chair of just about everything in town.  And when the time came to make a conscience call on a gay rights issue, he did the only thing he could do, and voted in favor of the legislation.  He was the only Republican vote to do so, and because he was the swing vote, his vote carried the day.

Republicans were furious with him. 

After the elections in November, the people returned Art Mayo back to the Legislature, but the Republicans decided to have their pound of flesh.  They stripped him of all his committee positions.  Essentially, the only thing he could do was show up when issues were voted out of committee and vote with the general body.  Did the Democrats woo him? Absolutely.  Five weeks later, he switched party affiliation.

And two years later, the voters replaced him with Paula Benoit.  But Paula wasn't Art, she didn't make difficult conscience decisions, in part because she never really had to.  As part of the minority, her vote didn't matter so much.  She was what we call a "catch and release".

And then in a twinkling it was 2008, and Benoit was swept out of office ... narrowly ... on a blue tide of Obama voting.  Even so, Bath hadn't gone quite blue yet ... they voted for Obama, but not Seth Goodall.

But as a whole, with one exception, the whole district was getting bluer.  The one exception, Woolwich, remains pretty staunchly conservative.  All the other towns are equivocal ... they may vote for a neighbor for one election, but will vote the other way on the federal ticket.

But it's what Democrats did in 2008 that made the difference.

Democrats did two things.  They decided to concede no state or district.  And they developed an incredible get out the vote strategy, choosing to leave no voter behind.

Eloise Vitelli was the beneficiary of that process.  Maine Democrats can assemble a team of volunteers in a few days, and have them out on the streets, identifying their base voters, determining how to get people to the polls, thus leaving the candidate free to try to sway other voters in other ways. 

Republicans were just starting to consider absentee ballots a good thing at the Republican caucus this summer, something the Democrats had down cold five years ago.

Vitelli also benefitted from the college students still being in town during the election, and by the snowbirds still being here.  Snowbird and student votes may have narrowed the vote in Phippsburg, Benoit's town, significantly.

Benoit also tried to distance herself from the unpopular governor and former employer, thus distancing herself from many other Republicans, as well.  She didn't have much star power ... unlike Vitelli, who had Michael Michaud, among other Democrats, including the two she faced in the caucus, all of whom rallied around her.  It was an exercise in Democratic unity, something Paula Benoit couldn't claim.  She did not even have moderate Collins or Snowe by her side everywhere, though she did get an endorsement. 

And although all three candidates were 'clean', the Democrats poured more money into this race than the Republicans did.  Part of the reason was the dysfunction that the state GOP is going through, and likely, Benoit's own moderation worked against her.

And in the end, Benoit did some damage to herself with some ill-conceived comments at the two debates she attended.  Specifically, she spoke out on welfare issues that seemed harsh and, to be honest, heartless, as well as taking a hard line on gun rights, refusing to consider background checks or gun show loopholes.  Those seemed to be, and were, calculated decisions to bring the base out.  It may have done, but the comments sent wannabe swing moderates scurrying for Democratic cover.

But what it will likely do is cause Republicans not to float a moderate, even in districts where only a moderate can prevail.  They would prefer to use the exercise as a cheap form of advertising for more conservative members who might be running for other offices in years to come.

But the Democrats cannot rest on their laurels. They have to stick to the GOTV playbook and keep their machine highly burnished if they want to keep adding to their numbers in the State House, in the Blaine House, and in Congress.

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