AUGUSTA, Maine — Shortly after it became clear Tuesday night that Bruce Poliquin had sewn up the Republican party’s nomination in Maine’s open 2nd Congressional District, he made it clear that he would need opponent Kevin Raye’s supporters if he is to win the general election in November.
“We are going to need Kevin, we’re going to need his team, his support and his financial backing to make sure we return the 2nd Congressional seat to Republican hands,” Poliquin told supporters in Bangor after garnering more than 56 percent of the vote.
Poliquin said Wednesday that party leaders will attempt to accomplish that goal with a public “unity gathering” Friday in Bangor where party leaders, including Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, will be in attendance. The Maine Republican Party would not confirm Poliquin’s statements Wednesday afternoon.
Raye and Poliquin had been locked for months in a contentious debate about which of them would best represent Republican values in Congress. While both presented themselves to primary voters as conservatives, Raye did so after developing a reputation as a moderate Republican while serving as an employee of former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and during his tenure in the Legislature.
The grappling over the conservative mantle highlighted a longstanding internal GOP conflict in Maine and beyond: a fissure between the far right and more moderate Republicans, who are becoming increasingly rare in Maine since the 2012 retirement of Snowe and Tuesday’s repudiation of Raye.
That gap was perhaps never more evident than in 2012, when Maine supporters of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul took control of the state convention and elected delegates who supported the libertarian-leaning Paul over the party’s more moderate candidate, Mitt Romney, though some of them were turned away from participating in the Republican National Convention later that year.
On Tuesday, Republican voters in the 2nd District chose Poliquin, a self-billed political outsider, over Raye, who has spent most of his career in elected office or working for Republicans and Republican groups. Raye told the BDN early Tuesday night that if Poliquin won the primary he’d have a “hard time” against Democrat Emily Cain — who won her party’s nomination Tuesday in dominating fashion — in the general election.
Conservatives touted the win, lumping it in with other factors they say indicate that far-right Republicans such as Poliquin could be surging this year. Chief among those indicators was U.S. House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss on Tuesday to a tea party candidate in Virginia.
In Maine, Republican voters who are in the minority against Democrats and independents, managed to top Democrats’ turnout in the 2nd District by more than 25 percent. The party’s leaders trumpeted that turnout advantage Wednesday.
“Republicans in Maine are clearly energized about this year’s elections,” said Maine GOP Chairman Rick Bennett in a written statement. “Maine Republicans are eager to get out and help our candidates up and down the ticket, while Democrats are understandably questioning the direction of their party.”
Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant rejected that characterization and pointed to Cain’s overwhelming win as evidence of greater unity. He told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday that Poliquin’s victory aligns with a dynamic in Maine that usually gives conservative candidates an easier road in primary elections than against Democrats in general elections.
He seized on Raye’s statement about the difficulty Poliquin could have in November, calling the GOP candidate “an abrasive, far-right Republican who isn’t in tune with the Maine people.”
However, the “conservatives win primaries but lose elections” dynamic did not hold true in the 2010 governor’s race, where conservative LePage badly beat Democrat Libby Mitchell in a five-person race.
Poliquin’s campaign this year offers many similarities to LePage’s winning formula — which should not surprise, given that LePage’s political strategist, Brent Littlefield, is consulting on Poliquin’s campaign.
Aside from their shared Republican values in general — cutting taxes, reducing government spending — both are anti-abortion. Bob Emrich, an evangelical pastor in Plymouth and board member for the Christian Civic League of Maine, said Tuesday that he and pastors across the 2nd District urged parishioners to turn out for Poliquin based on his stance against abortion.
Poliquin emphasized Wednesday that, like LePage, his beliefs on abortion come from personal experiences — not political considerations —including raising his 23-year-old son, Sam, as a single father after the death of his wife.
“Some people use phrases and words to appeal to a different kind of voter; some people will say ‘well, my son or daughter was only a viable life after five months of pregnancy,’” said Poliquin. “I just don’t buy that. I think Sammy was viable the moment he was created. … I’m pro-life, but it’s about my personal beliefs, not politics.”
Aside from social issues, LePage and Poliquin cast themselves as successful businessmen who eschew political posturing. Both emphasize their rise from humble upbringings, and both highlight their heritage by speaking French in public settings — LePage during his State of the State address and at other events and Poliquin Tuesday night to open his victory speech.
Their tenure in politics also has been similar, with both entering the statewide fray in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary. Less than four years later, they’re two of the top three Republicans — joining Collins — vying for office in Maine.
Grant said a Raye candidacy would have been better for LePage because unlike Poliquin, he might have pulled some voters to the polls who otherwise wouldn’t have come out for LePage.
“What would have been helpful for LePage is someone out there to attract voters who don’t already agree with him,” said Grant. “Bruce Poliquin is not that guy.”
Poliquin disagreed and rejected the notion that any Republican would vote for Cain over himself and that his conservatism will be a problem in the general election.
“If you’re a Republican, a Democrat or an independent, your concern right now is jobs,” said Poliquin. “If your kids can’t find work and are on unemployment, that doesn’t discriminate with respect to what party you’re in.”
Littlefield, who has worked for campaigns across the country, said a wave of “Republicans doing well” nationally will extend to Maine.
“Last night was a very, very big deal if you look at the national trends and you look at the national discussion right now,” said Littlefield. “It’s very clear that Maine is following that national trend and that Republicans in general are doing very well around the country.”
Grant said anti-LePage voters — including many independents and some Democrats — will bode well for Cain and Mike Michaud, the Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate.
“The way that Emily Cain and Troy Jackson ran their campaigns didn’t lead to any further divisions. Their supporters will have an easy time moving forward together,” said Grant. “Poliquin and Raye took hard shots at each other.”