Interesting times in the 1st Congressional District

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With all our attention on the primary, there was some other big political news in Maine over the past few weeks. The gubernatorial race is shaping up as a contest between Shawn Moody, Alan Caron, Terry Hayes, and a Democrat to be named later. Those on the left are salivating at the chance to bump off Rep. Bruce Poliquin. And the idea of a “blue wave” is spoken about gleefully. Completely understandable; a shot at retaking the U.S. House to serve as a block against the Trump administration is a Democratic priority.

But in Maine, we also have a 1st Congressional District. That is where things are getting interesting.

Rep. Chellie Pingree and Maine Democrats have begun a concerted effort to attack her opponent and raise a war chest defending the seat. While political fundraising emails always announce a dire crisis — to riff on Machiavelli, fear raises more money than love — these communiques communicate something more.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree addresses the Democratic Convention on May 18 in Lewiston. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

However, the target is not Republican Mark Holbrook, who Pingree beat in 2016 58 percent to 42 percent. Instead, the candidate is independent nee Democrat Marty Grohman of Biddeford. Less than a year ago, Grohman was a Democrat representing the York County city in the Maine Legislature. Yet, like independent gubernatorial candidate (and state treasurer) Terry Hayes, he was worried about the influence of special interest groups on his party. So he left. And decided to run for Congress.

He is likely to be a formidable candidate. He has run businesses; he knows firsthand that neither employers nor employees can succeed without each other. He led a recovery employment fair, seeking to put men and women overcoming addiction into jobs to give them both income and purpose. But he still holds many ideas traditionally ascribed to Democrats.

With ranked-choice voting likely to be in play in November for congressional races, an interesting dynamic arises. Which is why Pingree is trying to raise money and Maine Democrats are sending emails attacking their former member.

Part of the reason ranked-choice voting was successful at the ballot box is due to Gov. Paul LePage. While there are some boosters who appreciate the idea for its own policy merits, there are others who invested in “61 percent” bumper stickers and believed a new voting scheme would prevent a future Paul LePage.

The theory goes, in 2010, Libby Mitchell’s voters would have preferred Eliot Cutler as a second choice, and vice versa. Under an RCV scheme, Gov. Cutler would have then taken office in early 2011.

However, this fall, 1st Congressional District voters will be able to rank (at least) three candidates. This presents an interesting challenge for Pingree.

In 2008, she won a six-way Democratic primary en route to taking the seat she now holds. Pingree beat candidates like the current and former Portland mayors, Ethan Strimling and Michael Brennan. But her closest competitor was a centrist, pro-business veteran. A guy named Adam Cote.

If the 28 percent of southern Maine Democrats who were Cote supporters prefer former Democrat Grohman to Pingree, an interesting dynamic arises. Can Grohman take enough first-place votes to survive to a second round? To do so, he will likely need GOP voters to place him above Holbrook.

But a plausible scenario exists where Grohman overtakes Pingree in a second round of ranked-choice voting to serve as a US Congressman. That is why they are sending out attack emails. If it comes true, do Pingree and Maine Democrats file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of ranked-choice voting?

The apocryphal Chinese curse says “may you live in interesting times.” Donald Trump is president, peace may break out on the Korean peninsula, and Democrats may wind up fighting against the electoral system their gubernatorial candidates uniformly supported.

Interesting times, indeed.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.