ScoAUGUSTA, Maine — Former University of Maine football player Dean Scontras jokes that he may need a Doug Flutie-style miracle pass to oust incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree from her 1st Congressional District seat.
Joking aside, the Republican says momentum is building in his outgunned campaign despite numbers that strongly favor the 1st-term congresswoman from North Haven island.
If history is any guide, odds are against Scontras in a decidedly blue district where no Republican has been sent to the U.S. House since 1994, when James Longley Jr. served a single term. But that was also a midterm year in which sentiment ran high against the incumbents — just as it is now as many voters seethe over a government they say is too fat and spends too much.
“It’s not so much pro-Republican but anti-incumbency,” Scontras said during a break in campaigning. “It’s a throw-the-bums out mentality.”
Scontras, an Eliot resident and co-owner of an alternative energy company, points to Republican Scott Brown’s surprise victory in January’s election for the Senate seat held by the late Edward M. Kennedy as evidence that underdogs can overcome long odds.
While Scontras hits hard on Democrats’ role in swelling the deficit, the national GOP is accusing Pingree of hypocrisy for railing against the use of corporate jets by members of Congress and then years later accepting flights on her billionaire fiance Donald Sussman’s jet.
Pingree, who defends those flights, stresses her support in Washington to pass the health care overhaul, votes for clean energy and to deny funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, issues she says bring her in line with voters in her southern Maine district.
But she acknowledged voters are angry.
“This is an election year when no one should take anything for granted,” she said. Supporters showed up in droves two years ago to elect Democrats, Pingree says, and now those voters need to be re-energized.
Pingree said voters she meets are more likely to talk about their own concerns, such as their jobs, and not her jet rides. “Interestingly,” she said, “most people say to me it’s unfair to focus on my personal life when there are so many issues at stake.”
Pingree agrees, and says voters she meets say they only learned of her engagement to Sussman through recent news stories about the flights.
Augusta hairdresser Jane Pare said Pingree’s jet rides are nobody’s business.
“I think that’s foolish to accuse people of things like that,” Pare said. “The state didn’t pay for it, did they? Then what are they complaining about?”
But another voter, UMaine at Augusta senior Josh Hatfield of Lewiston, says the negative publicity would steer some voters away from Pingree. One poll indicates only a third of voters said the flights issue would influence their votes.
New polls, released last week, little more than a month before Election Day, also indicated more than half of the voters surveyed supporting Pingree and just over a quarter favoring Scontras.
Financially, Pingree is well ahead, having raised nearly $670,000 as of June 30 compared to Scontras’ $152,000, according to Federal Election Commission figures on the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics website.
The center’s OpenSecrets site shows the bulk of Pingree’s contributions — 81 percent — come from individuals and that 85 percent of her contributions come from out of state, for the ninth-highest out-of-state percentage among House candidates this cycle.
Ron Schmidt, professor of political at the University of Southern Maine, said a Scontras win is a possibility but not likely. With the governor’s race getting so much attention, voters’ anger and frustration is drawn to that race, leaving Pingree less vulnerable in her congressional contest, he said.
“If the Republicans were running a more high-profile campaign, there might be a chance” for Scontras, said Schmidt.
Pingree, who was born in Minneapolis and went on to run a bed and breakfast and restaurant on North Haven, served in the Maine Senate from 1993 to 2000, gaining national attention for her sponsorship of a pioneering law to lower prescription drug prices. After an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 2002, Pingree served as the national president and CEO of Common Cause before becoming the first Democratic woman elected to represent Maine on Capitol Hill.
Scontras, a native of Kittery, entered politics in 2008 with a 1st District primary loss to Charlie Summers, who lost to Pingree in the general election.