AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican gains in the Maine Statehouse will give Gov. Paul LePage a stronger hand as he pushes a second-term agenda that will likely include further changes to welfare programs and another attempt to pass right-to-work legislation.
Maine Republicans on Wednesday were celebrating not only a victory over Democrat Mike Michaud in the hotly contested three-way race for governor, but a likely majority in the state Senate and the first GOP congressman in the 2nd Congressional District in two decades.
"It was a really good day for Republicans in Maine," said Assistant Senate Republican Leader Roger Katz of Augusta.
The party benefited in part from conservatives turning out in large numbers in rural areas to oppose a ballot question that sought to ban the use of dogs, traps and bait hunt bears, observers said.
Yet, Republicans contend that they were successful because they offered voters a change from years of Democratic policies they argue have hampered Maine's economic recovery.
Residents are "simply tired of not having jobs," said Bruce Poliquin, who defeated Democrat Emily Cain, becoming the first Republican to represent Maine's vast 2nd Congressional District since moderate Olympia Snowe.
Republicans came out on top in midterm races across the country Tuesday, taking control of the U.S. Senate and winning governor's contests in traditionally liberal-leaning states like Illinois and Massachusetts.
Cain, who conceded to Poliquin early Wednesday, said the country saw a "national wave of frustration with a Congress that has refused to come to the table to solve problems."
"People have a right to be upset," Cain said in a statement. "I hope that Washington listens to the message that was sent and puts aside partisanship and politics and starts putting people first."
Legislative leaders said unofficial results show that Republicans have gained five seats in the state Senate to wrest control away from Democrats and added 10 seats in the 151-member Democratic-controlled state House. Recounts are expected in some races, so the results could change.
Katz said Republicans hope to use their gains to make strides in cutting government spending, lowering taxes for working people and eliminating unnecessary red tape.
A Republican majority in the Senate will be a big boost for LePage, who saw many of his proposed policies get killed by Democrats, who swept back into the majority in both chambers in 2012.
LePage has expressed interest in making another push to make Maine a right-to-work state, meaning that union members wouldn't be required to pay dues or fees. His administration also has said that it wants to enact more changes to welfare, like requiring more of recipients to be tested for drugs.
"It's not like (LePage) is going to be able to just completely push exactly the agenda he wants in the Legislature," said Ron Schmidt, a professor at the University of Southern Maine. "But his hand is definitely stronger than it was before."
Democrats did see some wins Tuesday.
In addition to remaining in control of the state House, the party was victorious in the in the 1st Congressional District, where Chellie Pingree easily defeated Republican challenger Isaac Misiuk and independent Richard Murphy.
But Republicans said that they're now focused on maintaining a "long-term, sustainable majority in Maine" and expressed confidence that their successes this year will be repeated.
"We built an apparatus of winning elections that will go beyond this cycle," said David Sorensen, a spokesman for the Maine Republican Party.
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