Jon Courtney, the Republican candidate for Maine’s 1st District seat in the U.S. House, says he plans to win voters to his underdog campaign “one handshake at a time.”
Maine’s political community, however, doubts his strategy — or perhaps simply perceives the odds against Courtney to be too steep against two-term incumbent Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree in the Nov. 6 general election.
“Other than something like major scandal involving Pingree, she is pretty darn close to a lock in that district,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, offering the consensus view of Courtney’s chances.
Courtney, the Maine Senate majority leader, narrowly defeated Patrick Calder in the June 12 Republican primary. The surprisingly tight race with Calder, a political unknown, robbed Courtney of any momentum that might have enhanced his chances against a powerful incumbent.
Worse, history and mathematics offer Courtney little hope for winning: Democrats have taken eight consecutive elections and 12 of the last 13 in the 1st District.
The most recent electoral history also illuminates the challenge Courtney faces. In 2010, a year when Maine voters elected a Republican governor and GOP majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, Pingree received 169,114 votes. Her Republican challenger, Dean Scontras, garnered 128,501 votes.
Alone, that margin of more than 40,000 votes would prove daunting. The challenge becomes more formidable when evaluated geographically. Pingree won every 1st District county in 2010. Scontras placed closest in Lincoln County, where Pingree won 53 percent to 45 percent.
Scontras, whom one poll showed edging ahead of Pingree days before the election, won small towns, largely by small margins. Communities where he outpolled Pingree include Gray, Naples, New Gloucester, Scarborough, Sebago, Windham, Wiscasset, Berwick and Lebanon. He received no more than 53 percent of the vote in any of those communities.
Conversely, Pingree crushed Scontras in the 1st District’s most populous communities. She received 72 percent of the vote in Portland and 64 percent in South Portland. Other strong showings for the Democrat included Saco (57 percent), Biddeford (62 percent), Camden (65 percent), Augusta (58 percent), Brunswick (63 percent) and Cape Elizabeth (57 percent).
Republican legislative candidates fared well in the southern and western reaches of the 1st District — in many cases, those closest to the more conservative New Hampshire — but Courtney would have to take better advantage of those apparent Republican strongholds than Scontras did to even partially offset Pingree’s advantage in more populous areas.
“The same pockets of support that [Pingree] has earned are the same voters who will vote in support of same-gender marriage and for President Obama,” said Phil Harriman, a Republican from Yarmouth who served four terms in the Maine Senate and who now co-writes a political blog for the Bangor Daily News.
Based on federal financial disclosure documents, Pingree’s campaign fund dwarfs Courtney’s. To date, national Republican party organizations and their financial backers have shown far more interest in 2nd District candidate Kevin Raye than in Courtney.
The prospect that Republicans could pick up an Electoral College vote from Maine’s 2nd District and the perception that Raye’s chances of beating incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud are much better than Courtney’s against Pingree will funnel most, if not all, of the national political action committee money into the 2nd District, according to Harriman.
The National Federation of Independent Businesses will direct part of a $2 million ad buy to support Raye, according to a Tuesday post on the Politico blog.
Courtney, who owns a small business, has yet to attract any similar support. He said his campaign had not received any indications that financing from national Republican groups would come soon.
“We expect that it will come when we move up in the polls,” he said.
A June 25 Critical Insights poll showed Pingree leading 57 percent to 31 percent. Courtney said his campaign has no new polling data to make public.
Short on money and momentum, how could Courtney make up that kind of ground between now and Nov. 6?
He plans to contrast his “roll up your sleeves, regular guy” persona to a “Washington elite” portrayal of Pingree, who now ranks as the 12th wealthiest member of Congress, according to The Hill.
“People want to be represented by one of them, someone who will understand their concerns and listen,” Courtney said. “I know we have a lot of work to do so people will get to know who I am.”
Making the case that legislators in Augusta managed to pass a budget, an income tax rate cut and welfare reform, Courtney points to his ability to achieve “bipartisan buy-in” during his two years as Maine Senate majority leader. That argument might solidify support with rural voters “west of the Androscoggin,” Harriman said, but touting the Republican-led 125th Legislature’s agenda isn’t likely to win points in Portland or along the coast.
Otherwise, Courtney offered few specifics on how he plans to connect with voters.
That’s a problem, according to Harriman.
To generate support from donors and influential community leaders, Courtney must “give the people of the district a reason to get rid of an incumbent who has spent two decades building networks of political support,” Harriman said. “He has given no indications that he’s about to reveal a new agenda that people are about to embrace,” which would, in turn, spur financial and logistical support to create momentum.
Courtney might be able to share an inspiring personal story about overcoming adversity and building a business, but he has to come up with a better answer to how he can win, because that’s what “makes people write checks,” Harriman said.
On the road to Washington, checks travel better than handshakes.
Robert Long is a political analyst for the Bangor Daily News.