NEWPORT, Maine — Eric Kinney gassed up his truck at the intersection Newport-area locals call the Crossroads of Maine and shook his head in dismay.
His disgust wasn’t about high gas prices or the heavy traffic streaming along pockmarked Route 2 or nearby Interstate 95, or the surrounding central Maine towns where jobs are too scarce and the pay too low. It was about the primary election between Republicans Kevin Raye and Bruce Poliquin and, ultimately, who will go to Congress to fill Maine’s open 2nd Congressional District seat.
“I figure they’re going to be as critical as they can about each other, but this campaign has been down and dirty,” said Kinney, who lives in nearby Detroit. “I don’t like it. They should be focusing on the facts.”
Raye, the former Maine Senate president, and Poliquin, the self-made businessman and former state treasurer, have been lobbing offensives at each other since at least January, and as it sometimes goes in politics, they’re attacking each other for the very things each candidate says are his greatest strengths.
Raye says Poliquin is a millionaire businessman who can’t gain traction unless he writes checks to his own campaign.
Poliquin says Raye is a liberal career politician who is part of the problem, not the solution.
And when it comes to electability, the attacks continue, despite the fact Raye has lost twice in general elections for the 2nd Congressional District seat and Poliquin has failed in GOP primary bids for the U.S. Senate and the governor’s mansion.
Despite their rancor for each other, there is one thing the candidates agree on: Sending more Democrats to Washington, such as Democratic state Sens. Emily Cain or Troy Jackson, who are vying for their party’s nomination on the other side of the ticket, would be a fiscal disaster. But Raye’s and Poliquin’s approaches to the same goal of fiscal conservatism are different, which is where voters in the Republican primary might find fodder for making a choice.
The rest of the country is watching. In a divisive political climate where the balance of power in Congress is everything, an open House seat — created by the departure of six-term Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud, who is giving it up to run for governor — is sure to attract national media and heavy spending from political action committees from outside Maine.
Maine’s long-standing reputation as politically moderate, at least compared to other New England states, generally doesn’t hold up in primary elections. Historically, moderate Republican candidates who would fare better against a Democrat in the general election have had trouble winning primaries. Part of the reason is that primary elections in June, months before most voters are paying attention, typically see low turnouts and attract the most politically engaged and strident voters. That’s why Raye and Poliquin are spending a lot of time, effort and resources to stake out their fiscally conservative pedigrees.
Perhaps the best example of that is each candidate’s flame-throwing when it comes to the no-new-taxes Grover Norquist Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which Poliquin has signed and Raye has not.
“It makes no sense to me to give Washington an opportunity to tax us more and bring in more tax revenue, which they will then spend,” said Poliquin during a recent interview with the Bangor Daily News. “He says it’s irresponsible to make that pledge because he wants to save the option for a crisis. We are already in a crisis. We don’t have to wait for a crisis. The root cause of this crisis is overspending.”
Raye said signing the pledge would prevent him from advancing some of goals he says the American people, both Republicans and Democrats, are screaming for.
“Signing that pledge would prevent me from voting to close loopholes and special tax breaks for corporations or special interests,” said Raye. “Voting to do away with ethanol subsidies, that put 33 senators in violation of the pledge, including people like [the very conservative Kentucky Republican Sen.] Rand Paul. The question for Bruce is this: is he prepared to uphold wasteful subsidies and corporate loopholes?”
Raye said one of his greatest achievements in the Maine Legislature, where he served in the Senate for eight years, was helping Republican Gov. Paul LePage push through a sweeping income tax cut package in 2011 — called by proponents the largest state tax cut in history — which included lowering the state’s top income tax rate and doubling the estate tax exemption from $1 million to $2 million.
Poliquin, who was the state treasurer during LePage’s first two years in office, touts his work on the Maine State Housing Authority board of directors, where he and others spearheaded an aggressive and controversial campaign to reduce the per-unit costs of low-income housing developments.
Aside from the attacks, the difference between Raye and Poliquin might be their approach. Poliquin describes himself as someone who wouldn’t compromise his conservative ideals no matter what, and cites Raye’s involvement in a legislative commission to study the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in Maine and his support of various tax and fee increases that were buried within mammoth budget bills as situations where he would have taken a stand.
“Voters want someone who will stand up and be their voice,” said Poliquin. “He could have stood up and said, ‘These things are wrong.’ He did not.”
Raye emphasized that his work on the ACA commission helped keep its findings from endorsing Obamacare — which he believes should be repealed — and that his votes on various state budget bills avoided crises and overall supported conservative principles. He said collaboration between the parties is crucial if there is ever to be an end to partisan gridlock in Washington.
“Everywhere I go across the 2nd District, I hear a universal feeling that they are angry and fed up with Washington and what appears to be the behavior of kids in a sandbox where they never move beyond the fighting and arguing to actually make something happen,” said Raye. “If you take a ‘my way or the highway’ approach and say, this is my position, my feet are in the concrete and I refuse to negotiate, you do nothing to advance your position.”
Both Raye and Poliquin are correct in their assertion that many Mainers, including 71-year-old Robert Richardson of Unity, who was also gassing up recently at the Crossroads of Maine, are looking for something new out of Washington.
“Politicians should be for the common people, not the rich people,” said Richardson.
Rob Fogg of Lewiston, who is a big LePage fan, said that with only days left until the June 10 primary, he still hasn’t made a decision between Poliquin and Raye.
“Right now I’m still trying to do my homework,” he said. “We definitely need a more conservative bent in Washington.”