September 22, 2019
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What would it take for Pingree or Michaud to lose?

AUGUSTA, Maine — In 1916, Republican Wallace H. White Jr. defeated fellow Lewiston resident Daniel J. McGillicuddy to wrest Maine’s 2nd District seat in the U.S. House away from the Democratic incumbent.

That’s the last time an incumbent in Maine’s 2nd District lost a re-election bid. For perspective, Maine had four congressional districts at the time, and women did not win the right to vote until four years later.

Incumbents who failed to win re-election in Maine’s 1st U.S. House District have been almost as rare. The only two incumbents to fall during the past 50 years were Republican James Longley Jr., whose two-year tenure in Congress ended when Democrat Tom Allen defeated him in 1996, and Democrat Peter Kyros, who narrowly lost to Republican David Emery in 1974.

Other than those ousters, every other member of the U.S. House from Maine has departed on his or her own terms — either to seek another elected office or to retire from public service.

Despite Gallup national polling data that shows a historically low public opinion of Congress and the proliferation of national anti-incumbent movements such as the Kick Them All Out Project, polling of Maine voters shows incumbent Democratic U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree in the 1st District and Mike Michaud in the 2nd District holding wide leads over their Republican challengers.

A Maine People’s Research Center poll conducted Sept. 15-17 gives Michaud a 19 percentage point lead over Kevin Raye and Pingree a 28 percentage point advantage on Jon Courtney. A Critical Insights survey done between Sept. 12 and Sept. 16 showed similarly wide margins.

That disconnect represents long-standing national and historic trends, according to Emily Shaw, a political science professor at Thomas College in Waterville. “It’s a classic dynamic,” she said. “Voters hate Congress but love their own people.”

“Voters take issue with the institution,” not the individuals who represent them, said Ronald Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine.

A December 2011 Pew Research Center poll on public attitudes toward Congress revealed that, while two-thirds of those surveyed believed most members of Congress should be replaced and only one in five said they would like to see most members of Congress re-elected, half say they would like to see their own representative re-elected.

“This equals the level of anti-incumbent sentiment in 2010, when 58 incumbents went on to lose re-election bids — the most since 1948,” the poll summary states.

There are recent factors that seemingly set the stage for strong challenges to Maine’s Democratic incumbents by Raye and Courtney, whose leadership positions in the Maine Senate enhanced their statewide name recognition.

For example, 70 percent of the Republicans surveyed by the Pew Center shared strong anti-incumbent sentiments. And in February, popular U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican, cited her frustration with gridlock in Congress when she announced that she would not seek re-election. The Maine Legislature, controlled by Republicans for the first time in more than three decades, also redrew the state’s congressional districts before the 2012 election.

Yet the Raye and Courtney campaigns have failed to galvanize anti-incumbency momentum within the state and from outside sources.

The personal nature of Maine politics likely has a lot to do with that lack of traction, according to Michael Cuzzi, a former Democratic campaign strategist who manages the Portland office of VOX Global, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs consulting firm.

“In Maine, voters get to know politicians personally,” Cuzzi said. “We have ‘Mike,’ ‘Chellie,’ ‘Susan’ [Collins] and ‘Olympia’ in Congress. That creates a harder challenge for people to throw an office holder out. People in Maine vote the person, not the party.”

Another factor to consider is that even when voters are dissatisfied with their representative, it might not automatically make them support an opponent, Schmidt said.

In recent years, anti-establishment sentiments have erupted more often in primaries, where the electorate is smaller and more focused, according to Schmidt.

“If you think about the Tea Party, you get a significant portion of the electorate worked up to show up at the polls to throw someone out,” Schmidt said. The person who beat the incumbent in a party primary “may not be as likeable to the general electorate.”

“That’s more of a risk on the right than on the left,” Cuzzi said. “Being ‘primaried’ has become a verb, particularly among the tea party set. There is now a real push for purity on the right that leads them to challenge any incumbents who they feel might be compromised.”

Cuzzi and Schmidt both pointed to the Indiana Republican primary defeat of moderate Sen. Richard Lugar, who served in the U.S. Senate since 1977, as the latest example of intra-party anti-incumbency.

Schmidt also believes that voters are savvy enough to recognize that seniority in Congress positions incumbents to “bring more back” to their district and state.

Cuzzi and Shaw agree that money — specifically federal dollars funnelled to diverse segments of their constituency — gives incumbents a huge advantage in congressional races.

“Bringing in a big contract for Bath Iron Works is something that incumbents can point to,” said Shaw. A challenger, even one who played a leadership role in the Legislature, “does not have something comparable to bring to constituents,” she said.

Regular media reporting on what Maine’s members of Congress do to represent the state, even if perceived unfavorably by a large segment of voters, enhances name recognition, Cuzzi said.

In turn, familiarity fills campaign coffers, according to Cuzzi. Individuals, businesses or groups that believe they can benefit from alliances with members of Congress contribute to their re-election campaigns to solidify those relationships.

“These groups want to be on the side of a winner and have their interests represented,” he said.

Campaign finance reports filed to date support Cuzzi’s assertion. As of June 30, Pingree had outraised Courtney by more than 10 to 1, and Michaud held a significant campaign cash advantage over Raye, although the Republican challenger recently picked up advertising support from the National Federation of Independent Business, which on Tuesday reported buying $11,000 worth of online ads for Raye.

“That’s the irony of the incumbent’s advantage,” Shaw said. “They will find it easy to raise money, but they might not have to spend it.”

Schmidt believes that both U.S. House races in Maine aren’t generating a lot of advertising or aggressive give-and-take because the presidential election, an open U.S. Senate seat and Question 1, the referendum to legalize same-sex marriage, have dominated the attention of voters, political party officials, the media and campaign staff.

Michaud’s campaign has begun running television ads, which Cuzzi said reflects the fact that his campaign perceives itself to be in a tighter race than Pingree. She has taken a lower profile during this election season than she did two years ago, when she first sought re-election to the 1st District seat.

That conforms to a general rule about congressional incumbency, according to Cuzzi.

“In general, the real opportunity for incumbents to be defeated — when they are most vulnerable — is their first re-election campaign,” he said. “They have fewer legislative victories under their belt and less dollars coming in. After that and every successive re-election, it becomes more difficult to knock them off.”

During Pingree’s first re-election bid two years ago, Republican challenger Dean Scontras surprised Maine political observers by nudging ahead of Pingree in one poll just days before the election. But, after the ballots were tallied, she triumphed by a comfortable margin.

Shaw and Schmidt take a “wait and see” approach to the impact of redistricting, but they don’t see it as a game changer.

Raye and Courtney, especially, have contrasted their ability to achieve compromise in the Maine Legislature with the gridlock in Congress in making their case against incumbents.

While Schmidt said that’s the strategy he would have advised five months ago, he acknowledged that it’s failed to shape the campaign in any meaningful way.

Because almost every state lawmaker can submit legislation that prompts a hearing, unlike Congress, “there’s less chance to claim personal ownership,” Shaw said. “The Legislature does not have the prestige factor, so it’s a different kind of accomplishment.”

A month before Election Day, what can Raye and Courtney do to counteract the power of the incumbency in Maine’s congressional races?

“At this point, it would either take a significant misstep or a real big turnout for the GOP in relation to other issues to turn the races around,” Schmidt said.

“They have to continue to look for ways to make really compelling reasons for people to change,” Cuzzi said. “There’s a very high hurdle to make people change. That’s a tough question. If I knew the answer to that, I could probably make a lot of money.”

Robert Long is a political analyst for the BDN.

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