AUGUSTA, Maine — With the primary election for Maine’s open 2nd Congressional District seat just weeks away, the two GOP candidates are using this weekend’s Republican State Convention to capture attention in a race that could be decided with a low voter turnout.
The Republicans vying to be their party’s candidate, Bruce Poliquin and Kevin Raye, say their path to the nomination is clear, though at least one GOP activist is concerned about whether either has done enough to ramp up his name recognition and position himself policywise.
Vic Berardelli of Newburgh, a longtime political operative who has worked on numerous campaigns, said earlier this week that even for a primary election, interest in the race among voters he’s talked with is slack.
“I’m intrigued that as a registered Republican voter in the 2nd District, it’s the Tuesday before the convention and I’ve not received the first direct mail piece from either Republican candidate,” he said. “At this point I don’t see a big fanatical groundswell in either direction.”
Berardelli, who is chairman of the conservative Maine Republican Liberty Caucus, spoke to the Bangor Daily News on his own accord and said his organization has yet to take a position in the race and that neither candidate has sought it by filing application materials.
Until Poliquin launched his first television ad earlier this month, which was biographical as opposed to policy-driven, neither had made a broad appeal to voters. Berardelli said both candidates might be making the mistake of assuming they’re better-known in Maine than they actually are.
“There’s a disease and I call it Augusta-itus,” said Berardelli. “People outside that circle are not paying that close attention. You can have a high-visibility position in Augusta and the average voter doesn’t know it.”
Despite the seemingly low interest in Maine seven months before the general election, Republicans operatives at the national level are poised to jump in on behalf of whoever wins the nomination.
“Once the primary is over, we expect to be involved in that race against whoever the Democratic nominee is,” said Ian Prior, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “It’s very much of a swing district. It is certainly within the top 20 or 30 races in the country.”
Prior said the open seat — which was vacated by Democrat Mike Michaud, who is running for governor — is viewed as a prime chance for Republicans to fortify their majority status in the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans view northern Maine to be a district that could go either way — even though it has sent Democrats to Congress in every election since 1994.
Veteran state lawmakers Emily Cain of Orono and Troy Jackson of Allagash are vying for the Democratic nomination.
Poliquin and Raye are no strangers to elections and both have held visible positions in the Republican Party.
Raye, a longtime lawmaker and party loyalist who served for two years as Maine Senate president, is counting on his 2nd District roots and political experience to propel him to the general election in November. That includes years working for moderate Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe — who last year gave Raye $5,000 through her political action committee — and once in the Legislature, helping Gov. Paul LePage push through the largest tax cut in Maine history in 2011.
In campaign emails and stops, Raye portrays himself as a longtime resident of the northern Maine district, which he contrasts to Poliquin — who moved from his home in Georgetown in the 1st District to Oakland after deciding to run for the open 2nd District seat.
Raye’s campaign has framed Poliquin as an opportunist who would do or say almost anything, including tapping his own personal wealth, to win an election.
“Kevin was born and raised and educated in the 2nd District and we feel very comfortable about who people are going to support in the primary,” said Raye spokesman Mike Leavitt. “He has some good name ID in the district and has done some fantastic work as a state senator.”
Poliquin, whose political background includes two unsuccessful statewide GOP primary campaigns and a stint as state treasurer in 2011-2012, argues that his business experience makes him the right candidate to champion his party’s increasingly conservative ideals. He paints Raye as a “career politician,” and doesn’t mean it as a compliment.
In trumpeting his business background, Poliquin is modeling Gov. Paul LePage’s successful campaign in 2010. With LePage on the ballot again in 2014, Poliquin’s campaign highlights the similarities between the two men.
“Voters want someone who can work hard and be passionate, not someone who is a career politician,” said Poliquin campaign manager Matt Hutson. “I think voters are ready for someone who represents their values.”
Poliquin has hired LePage’s senior political adviser, Brent Littlefield, to consult on his campaign, as well as Matt Gagnon, an employee of the Republican Governors Association and former Bangor Daily News blogger. LePage is also pictured in Poliquin’s first television commercial.
If money determines the outcome of this race, Poliquin has the advantage. He is outraising Raye, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports. As of March 31 of this year, Poliquin had raised more than $491,000, including almost $113,000 of his own money, compared to $275,000 for Raye, including about $3,200 of his own money.
Behind in the money race, Raye portrays himself as the underdog — and touts the fact that a higher percentage of his donors live in the 2nd District.
Poliquin and Raye both said they view the convention as an opportunity to re-introduce themselves as candidates who can win a major election — something neither has done. While neither candidate agreed to an interview for this story, both are scheduled to address convention delegates on Saturday.
“It’s an exciting moment,” said Leavitt. “It’s an opportunity to kick off the second phase of the campaign. It’s a really important platform to … lay out Kevin’s vision of what he feels he can bring to the 2nd District.”
Hutson said Poliquin is poised to distinguish himself from Raye.
“The voters are going to get a sense of the clear difference between Kevin and Bruce,” said Hutson.
In addition to the Democrat who wins that party’s primary, Raye or Poliquin also will have to fend off a challenge from Blaine Richardson, a conservative candidate who in January switched his party affiliation from Republican to independent.
Richardson is more likely to siphon support from Poliquin, whose campaign courts voters drawn to political outsiders and unbending conservative principles. Should Poliquin win the primary, he would then face the challenge of winning over an electorate that has a decades-long history of electing moderates, including Michaud, Snowe and John Baldacci.
Saturday’s convention speeches will set off the dash to the June 10 primary, with the winner in line to receive a major infusion of financial and tactical support from national GOP organizations, which see their best chance in a decade of winning the district.