Congressional campaign taking shape

Posted Nov. 27, 2009, at 7:54 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — It may seem early for the 2010 congressional campaign to start, but not for Jason Levesque. The Auburn businessman has been hitting fairs and factories for six months as the Republican sets his sights on Maine’s 2nd District congressional seat held by four-term Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud.

While the stage appears to be set for next year’s election in the 2nd District, the field is just beginning to take shape in southern Maine’s 1st District, where Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree will seek her second term. At least two Republicans are expressing interest as possible contenders in 2010.

“I’m thinking about it,” said Mark Gartley of Westbrook, a former Democrat who ran for Congress in the 2nd District in 1974 and ’78, losing to William Cohen and later Olympia Snowe. “I’m really disappointed in the direction of what’s going on in Washington these days,” added Gartley, a former Vietnam prisoner of war.

Dean Scontras, who came up short in the 2008 GOP primary against Charles Summers for the 1st District nomination, has set up an exploratory committee to collect financial pledges in case he becomes a candidate.

With no U.S. Senate race in Maine next year, the state’s two congressional races gain an elevated profile before Maine voters, who have not elected a Republican to Congress since James Longley Jr. won in 1994 in the 1st District.

Republican hopes in this cycle are buoyed by a historical pattern of incumbent presidents losing congressional seats held by members of his party in midterm elections, said Dwayne Bickford, a Republican strategist and former executive director of the Maine GOP.

Bickford is not surprised to see Levesque out so early to shake hands at mills, fairs and GOP town and county meetings.

“It’s not [early] if you want to defeat an entrenched incumbent,” said Bickford.

Scontras says in a Republican advocacy Web site that his party is energized by its candidates’ 2009 victories in gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia and is now looking for conservative candidates to run in competitive districts all across the country.

But the congressional races may not be so competitive in Maine, says a University of Maine political science professor.

“I think it’s tough going for a Republican in the 1st” district, said UMaine’s Mark Brewer. Even if Republicans do well in congressional races nationally, “it would have to take a real kind of perfect storm” of events to pull off a GOP win in the 1st District.

Brewer also thinks Michaud, a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate and conservative Democrats, is not vulnerable even though he represents a district with a history of going to both parties.

Republicans hope that congressional action on some of the year’s top issues can sway voters their way. With the election just less than a year off, dueling issue ads that criticize and defend Michaud’s votes on health care are appearing on TV.

Levesque also has taken Michaud to task for his support on the health care reform measure the House passed and was spurned in his request for a “town hall” debate on the subject.

Four-term incumbent Michaud, meanwhile, is stressing his work in Congress on issues affecting veterans, trade, transportation and other issues while issuing reminders of the federal funds he’s had a hand in directing to Maine. The former paper mill worker from East Millinocket and the first Franco-American from Maine to be elected to federal office is a member of the committees on Transportation and Infrastructure, Veterans’ Affairs and Small Business.

In last year’s congressional race, Michaud trounced former college professor John Frary with two-thirds of the vote in a challenge that was not viewed as serious.

Levesque, an Army veteran, started the Argo Marketing Group in Auburn, which employs 28 people. For the upcoming race, Levesque announced in May and has been actively campaigning and raising money. The Federal Election Commission shows Levesque with $94,594 through Sept. 30, compared to $393,712 for Michaud.

In the 1st District, the FEC shows Pingree with $217,334, and no GOP candidate listed.

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