Why Bears and Jelly Doughnuts Could Decide the Fate of the Maine Governor's Race

Sticky-sweet pastries and black bears have become wild cards in Maine's elections next week.

Residents of the state will vote on a ballot initiative Tuesday that would ban hunters from using dogs, traps, and junk food like jelly doughnuts and cold pizza to bait bears.

The referendum has become a hot-button issue. The Humane Society and other animal-rights activists say the ban would end what they consider to be cruel practices. But hunting groups and the state's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife say a ban would spur a dangerous boom in the bear population and devastate the economy in areas of Maine that see an influx of tourism during hunting season.

The controversy could have an especially powerful impact on the gubernatorial race. Political analysts say the ballot initiative may boost conservative voter turnout during an extremely close contest for the Maine governor's mansion. And that, analysts say, might deliver a reelection win to Republican Paul LePage, who has been locked in a tight race with Democratic challenger Michael Michaud for months.

"This issue could drive people to the polls who might not otherwise vote, in particular blue-collar, single men. People who are likely to be LePage supporters," said Andy Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

A majority of likely voters—57 percent—oppose the ban, according to a poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center in October. Most voters opposed to the initiative are conservative; 72 percent of Republicans said they plan to vote against the ballot measure, the survey found, compared to 44 percent of Democrats.

That could be welcome news for LePage. The race is considered a toss-up, with recent polls showing a dead heat between LePage and Michaud.

"The number of people who show up to vote against the bait ban who would not have voted otherwise is not going to be massive. But because the governor's race is just so tight, they could wind up having an impact," said Ron Schmidt, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine.

In the weeks leading up to the referendum, groups such as the Humane Society and pro-hunting organizations like the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council have been working to rally support for their positions.

Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting--a coalition of animal-rights activists, environmental groups, and businesses that support the ban--has aired television and radio commercials criticizing the use of bear traps, baiting, and hounding. The group has also organized door-to-door canvassing to promote voter turnout in favor of the ballot initiative.

Meanwhile, the Save Maine's Bear Hunt campaign is fighting the initiative and has similarly been working to turn out the vote. As evidence that popular opinion supports their position, the ban's opponents point out that Maine residents voted to sink a similar ballot initiative in 2004.

At this point, the outcome could go either way—for both the governor's race and the ballot initiative.

Katie Hansberry, the state director for the Humane Society in Maine, believes that large numbers of residents who want to end baiting and trapping will show up on Tuesday. "People are really passionate about this issue. It's being talked about up and down the state," Hansberry said.

That's at least one thing advocates on both sides can agree on.

"This is Maine. Our state has a long history of outdoor tradition, and everyone wants to make sure that we protect that," said James Cote, the campaign manager for Save Maine's Bear Hunt.