What if Chellie Pingree runs for governor?

Maine’s 2018 race for governor is shaping up to be a scrum. Roughly 20 candidates are expected to join the fray by the end of the year, and both the GOP and Democratic primaries so far lack clear frontrunners. Sen. Susan Collins would have dominated the field, but she announced last month that she’s staying in the U.S. Senate. Now there’s another big name that could shake up the race — 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree.

Pingree’s name has been absent from a lot of the speculation about this race, but behind the scenes, the Democratic congresswoman has told supporters she is seriously considering a run.

Rep. Chellie Pingree. Troy Bennett | BDN

The common understanding about Pingree is that, while popular in the 1st District, she would struggle to win over voters in the rural 2nd District. Commonly considered too liberal to compete in a district that voted for Donald Trump in 2016, Pingree’s statewide viability has been, in my opinion, underestimated.

Here’s why:

First, after serving in the Maine Legislature, making an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate, running Common Cause, and then serving four and a half terms in Congress, Pingree’s name ID is very high. This is not a guarantee of electoral success, especially since recent polling shows her with only 44 percent favorability. However, every other candidate currently in the race is virtually unknown statewide. That means, while Pingree spends her time and money making an argument for her candidacy, the others will still be working to introduce themselves to voters for the first time.

Second, Pingree is a seasoned campaigner who has won and lost high-profile races. She was soundly beaten by Collins in 2002, after running a multi-million dollar statewide race with the backing of the DC Democratic establishment. Such losses can end careers, but Pingree apparently learned from the trouncing, and went on to capture the 1st District House seat, easily beating Charlie Summers in 2008. Running for federal office or a statewide seat is much different than running for the Legislature, and her political and fundraising networks would not have to be built from scratch, as they would for many of her potential opponents.

Third, Chellie has access to money. Though likely not as financially formidable as she was when billionaire financier and former husband Donald Sussman was supporting her political career, Pingree would enter the governor’s race with the strongest financial backing in the field. Maine is a difficult place to raise money, and being able to tap DC networks for cash is a major advantage, especially in a primary.

There’s a strong case to be made for Pingree’s candidacy. But, this doesn’t negate the very real problem she would have with rural Maine voters.

Pingree has made a career as a progressive champion, and this would likely help clear the Democratic primary field, which she’d win in a landslide. But it will be very difficult for her to sell her Elizabeth Warren-style progressivism in the 2nd District, where Democrats already struggle to win races.

Perhaps just as interesting as a Pingree gubernatorial campaign would be the vacuum left if she vacates her congressional seat.

Top-tier Republicans have long steered clear of the 1st District race, dissuaded by the left-leaning electorate and Pingree’s massive financial advantage. Maine has shifted rightward in recent years, though, and without Pingree in the race, we would likely see a far better caliber candidate from the GOP.

And there is a bus station full of Democratic candidates-in-waiting.

At the top of the list is Chellie’s daughter and former Maine Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree. Hannah is a talented politician and an extremely likable person, and would be the clear beneficiary of her mother’s political machine and fundraising apparatus.

Another likely contender would be State Sen. Shenna Bellows, who registered as a candidate for the 1st District in 2012 when Pingree was considering a run for U.S. Senate. Bellows’ political path has become almost an homage to Pingree — running a left-leaning nonprofit, losing in a rout to Collins, and getting elected to the state Senate. It would make sense for Bellows to consider Pingree’s current seat as her next act.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, who lost the 2008 1st District Democratic primary to Pingree, would likely consider the race, as would a host of other current and former Democratic legislators who’ve been waiting for the seat to open to continue their climbs up the political ladder.

This could result in a crowded Democratic primary field that, combined with the gubernatorial primaries, could have every able-bodied politico running a campaign for someone or something in 2018. We could see more than 30 candidacies for higher office during the first six months of next year.

Pingree is expected to make her decision very soon. Her entrance into the race would have a dramatic impact on the course of Maine politics, regardless of her success, and it would be one more reason 2018 will be one of the most exciting election years in recent memory.


Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.