House hopefuls see opportunity in health care vote

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Posted March 22, 2010, at 10:34 p.m.

Democratic U.S. Reps. Michael Michaud and Chellie Pingree of Maine voted yes on the health care bill, and their Republican opponents couldn’t be more disapproving.

“So much for a representative government,” presumptive GOP 2nd Congressional District nominee Jason Levesque said in a statement Monday. “This health care bill passed against the wishes of a vocal public. The opposition of the majority [was disregarded], and the result is a bill that did nothing it was originally intended to do.”

“For most people I know who are trying to run a business and pay their bills, this is a penalty,” said presumptive Republican nominee Dean Scontras, who will challenge Pingree for her 1st Congressional District seat in November.

Scontras said the bill, which aims to allocate more than $900 billion over 10 years to expand insurance coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans, would overload a federal government already staggering under a $12.6 trillion national debt.

Levesque predicted that the largely rural 2nd District, which already has limited access to medical care, would see its health care options dwindling further under the bill thanks to its cuts in Medicare reimbursements.

Both challengers agreed that the contrast between themselves and their opponents couldn’t be more stark. They believe that the health care bill votes of their opponents will be mainstays in the campaign.

“This is more than health care. This is about government mandates and interventions into our daily lives. It is a precedent-setting piece of legislation and I think that as the debate continues, that is what the debate will evolve into,” Levesque said. “Why does my competitor believe that more government intervention in our lives is something we want when clearly it is not?”

“It is part of who she is,” Scontras said of Pingree’s vote, “and the idea that more government involvement in very large parts of the economy is good is just wrong. It didn’t work well in [federally run] housing and it’s not going to work in health care.”

Michaud said he is concerned about the bill’s proposed cuts to Medicare and secured promises from President Barack Obama to help address that issue before voting for the bill. Pingree said that she believed the bill’s restrictions on runaway health insurance costs would greatly benefit Mainers.

Two University of Maine political science professors, Mark Brewer and Amy Fried, agreed Monday that the health care bill might help the challengers define themselves against their opponents, but that the issue itself wouldn’t have much traction on the campaign trail.

Levesque and Scontras, they said, still face difficult tasks as political neophytes and Republicans in two different but solidly Democratic districts.

“I am not really sure what salience this issue will have,” Fried said. “It will remain controversial, but it won’t have the same overall weight that it would if the election were two weeks from now. There are quite a number of other things that will come before it. The economy is the most important factor.”

Levesque, Fried said, is running a good, energetic campaign. He is working hard to get himself known to his would-be constituents, but Michaud, the first recognized Franco-American from Maine to be elected to federal office, is well-known and experienced.

“I think in terms of matching a candidate to his district, Mike Michaud is as perfect a fit as you can get to the 2nd District,” Brewer said. “He is relatively liberal on using areas of government to help out the less affluent and he is also somewhat of a fiscal conservative. He matches up on guns, abortion, his years as a union worker in the blue-collar paper industry. He really is a perfect match for that district.”

The Michaud and Pingree votes will serve both Democratic candidates well as Election Day approaches, the professors said.

“Maine’s 1st District gets less and less likely [for a Republican upset] by the month. That district is well on its way to being solidly Democratic,” Brewer said. “The only way she [Pingree] could have gotten in trouble on this is to have voted no. Her vote was never in doubt. … If anything, maybe this bill did not go far enough for her.”

A critical element to the state’s congressional races as yet undefined is the health care bill’s implementation. If severe setbacks occur, the Republicans could find themselves riding a crest of voter dissatisfaction into Congress, Brewer said.

“This is probably the most high-profile vote we have had in two decades, if not longer,” Brewer said.

Levesque and Scontras said they both saw the best sort of sign of voter unhappiness — dramatic upticks in the individual, unsolicited campaign contributions they received Monday. “Mine went up 1,000 percent in one day,” Scontras said.

“If you talk to people who were in Congress back in the ’60s, they say that their biggest votes were on Medicare, civil rights. This [health care] vote belongs in that pantheon. It’s monumental,” Levesque said.

“Now, monumental doesn’t necessarily mean good,” he added. “The Hindenburg was monumental. So was the Titanic.”

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