ANALYSIS

Debate doesn’t change 1st District race, but Courtney gains in stature

Maine Republican Jon Courtney (left) will face Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (right) for the 1st Congressional District seat in the Nov. 6, 2012 general election.
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Maine Republican Jon Courtney (left) will face Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (right) for the 1st Congressional District seat in the Nov. 6, 2012 general election.
Posted Oct. 19, 2012, at 5:10 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Thursday’s televised debate between 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Maine Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney won’t change the outcome of the race.

A more than tenfold fundraising advantage, greater name recognition and other perks of incumbency have allowed Pingree, a Democrat, to coast through her second re-election bid. It would take a cataclysm to knock her off the path to a third term, and nothing remotely cataclysmic occurred during Thursday night’s hourlong debate at Bowdoin College.

Pingree politely established the authority she’s gained from four years in Congress, reiterating the progressive themes that earned her 75 percent of Portland’s vote two years ago.

She’s strong on the environment and possesses a well-deserved reputation as an advocate for women’s rights, safety-net programs and progressive social policies that matter to 1st District voters.

Pingree unabashedly defended her opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but vowed again to fight as a member of the Armed Services Committee to ensure the continued flow of defense contracts that provide jobs — many of them union jobs — at Bath Iron Works, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and other Maine defense contractors.

Challenged by Courtney on past votes against defense authorization bills, Pingree redirected the conversation to veterans issues. She touted her advocacy for greater awareness of and care for sexual assault trauma in the military. And she defused Courtney’s argument that a member of Congress can’t support the troops without supporting the defense budget by pointing out that funding to address the needs of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan comes from the VA’s budget, not the Pentagon’s.

Pingree displayed the comfort of a candidate with a big lead, playing what football fans would recognize as the political version of a late-game “prevent defense” without becoming defensive. She didn’t have to win the debate; she just had to stay ahead. And she did.

Lacking exposure because of a tight campaign budget and with no help from the National Republican Party, Courtney took good advantage of the opportunity the debate gave him to introduce himself to a television audience rather than “one handshake at a time,” his campaign theme.

He came off as an affable and earnest man of principle. He showed off the personal attributes of a politician who seems genuinely intent on “reaching across the aisle” to seek middle ground on contentious issues. A member of the crew breaking down the set after Thursday’s debate was overheard saying, “I really like Jon,” echoing a common conclusion drawn from Courtney’s debate performance.

The underdog generally conversed as an equal with the incumbent, declining to assume the shrill, aggressive tone of Dean Scontras, who challenged Pingree two years ago. In doing so, Courtney enhanced his stature as a candidate with potential for broader statewide appeal than previously demonstrated.

An uncomfortable bit of inexperience showed through when he used his first chance to question Pingree directly to ask her to name her favorite newspaper. Pingree’s husband, S. Donald Sussman, owns the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel.

When Pingree asked Courtney, who opposes raising the minimum wage, how a single mother could survive on minimum wage, he responded passionately that he had worked for minimum wage while a 17-year-old father. It’s one of the rare moments during the campaign when Courtney made reference to his compelling life story.

The Springvale Republican’s positions on abortion, same-sex marriage and the possibility of privatizing Social Security, among others, don’t align with those held by the majority of 1st District voters. That will almost certainly keep him out of Congress this year.

However, Courtney’s refusal to sign Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge demonstrates a willingness to break with arch-conservative orthodoxy. And his support for exploring alternative energy sources and his assertion that a resolution for how to safely dispose of spent nuclear fuel from the former Maine Yankee atomic power plant must be found before anyone talks further about nuclear power displayed an independence grounded in Maine values that transcend party lines.

Without an utter collapse of Pingree’s campaign, that independence won’t win Courtney a seat in Congress from the 1st District, but it might position him as an attractive conservative candidate for statewide office — perhaps if the current inhabitant of the Blaine House decides he’s completed his agenda or wants to attack it from another angle in two years.

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