LEWISTON, Maine — The outcome of Tuesday’s primary to pick the contenders to replace U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud in Congress will be a bellwether for both political parties in the summer and fall political campaigns.
Democratic and Republican primary voters in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes the vast majority of the state from Androscoggin County north, will choose two of four candidates that range the political spectrum from the progressive left to the tea-party right.
Republicans must decide between a candidate who has sought the post twice before and another who has lost statewide bids for governor and U.S. Senate. In the process, voters will pick between a tea party candidate who has vowed never to increase taxes and a moderate who says that pledge is fiscally irresponsible.
Democrats will choose between a pair of state senators: one a working logger, the other a university employee. Of the two, one touts her ability to broker a deal and reach compromises with her political opponents, while the other, a former independent, warns that “New Democrats” have been corrupted by corporate political action committee influence and have forgotten their party’s core value of standing up for the little guy.
Poliquin versus Raye
On the GOP side, Bruce Poliquin, a former state treasurer and pension fund manager, says he’s the only candidate in the race who is not a “career politician.”
He points to his life story — including the tragic loss of his wife at a young age and his deep belief in his Roman Catholic faith — as the reason he can claim to be the only “pro-life” candidate in the race. Poliquin made an unsuccessful run for governor in 2010 and for the U.S. Senate in 2012.
Poliquin’s primary opponent is former state Senate President Kevin Raye, a Republican from the Washington County town of Perry who is the former chief of staff for retired U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe. Raye has supported abortion rights and says he doesn’t believe the government has a role to play in the relationship between a woman and her doctor.
He touts his experience as a small businessman and his successes in the state Senate, including ushering in “the largest income tax cut in state history.”
But unlike Poliquin, he has refused to sign the Grover Norquist Taxpayer Protection Pledge, in part because, he says, it prohibits closing corporate tax loopholes and reacting to unforeseen national calamity.
Poliquin insists the only way to improve America’s sluggish economy is to reduce taxes as a means of increasing jobs and lowering government dependency.
Cain versus Jackson
On the Democratic side, Sen. Emily Cain of Orono said her 10-year track record at the Maine Legislature, first in the House and then in the Senate, is a testimony to her ability to craft good law and balanced budgets by “never walking away from the [negotiation] table.”
Her State House supporters include a cadre of influential Lewiston-Auburn lawmakers, including Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, House chairwoman of the powerful budget-writing Appropriations Committee, on which Cain has served.
Cain is the only candidate who can say she has consistently supported a woman’s right to seek and have an abortion, and she is the only female candidate in the race. She also is the only candidate in the race not born in Maine.
Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, says he wants to go to Washington not to broker deals but to stand up for the powerless. He has attacked Cain’s support of tax breaks for the wealthy and her acceptance of campaign donations from high-profile businessmen.
Jackson has garnered broad support from Maine’s unionized workers and his State House supporters include populist firebrand lawmakers such as Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, and Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford.
New order or collective yawn?
In many respects, voters Tuesday will not only be picking their favorite candidates but will help define their party’s respective ideologies in Maine for the decade ahead. Their choices also will likely guide the direction and tone of the summer and fall election campaigns and will be the first indication of whether the influence of “dark money” advertising works on Maine voters.
The vote Tuesday will also be the first real litmus test of where Maine’s party voters are as they eye their choices for Congress, the U.S. Senate and the governor’s office in November. Are voters engaged and paying attention or will voter turnout amount to a collective yawn?
Turnout will be an indicator of how focused Democrats and Republicans voters are and — based on their candidate selections — how far they are leaning to the left or the right. Or, as one Maine political observer on the social media site Twitter put it, “how far they are leaning away from the center.”
Another suggested the results from Tuesday would simply tell us “who to hate in November.”
In 2002, Democrats and Republicans turned out nearly equal numbers of voters in the 2nd District’s primary election. Republicans saw 38,808 voters, while Democrats turned out 39,006, according to state election data.
In the general election that year, Michaud, with 116,868 votes, beat Raye, who got 107,849 votes.
Jim Melcher, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington, said he had not tracked much polling data on the races, but he believed both primary races would be “very competitive,” and that the choices for party voters are distinct.
“Poliquin and Jackson have taken a hard line on a number of issues and are offering the idea that what Washington needs is a fighter for core party principles who won’t back down and won’t be too quick to compromise, especially Jackson,” Melcher said. “Cain and Raye are coming more from a perspective that Washington needs people who are looking for results and that will take working with the other side sometimes.”
Melcher said Cain certainly has the “liberal” credentials she needs to win the primary and has clobbered Jackson in the fundraising arena, benefiting from the support of the League of Conservation Voters, which has targeted Jackson in attack-ad mailers sent to registered Democrats.
Still, Jackson’s floor speech during the Maine Democratic Party convention in May has been heralded by Republicans and Democrats alike as one of the best political speeches in state history. If anything moves Jackson’s lackluster polling numbers, analysts say it will be that message, which many in Democratic circles are calling simply, “The Speech.”
“I figured I better let it all go and let people know what was in my heart, so win, lose or draw, they’re going to know,” Jackson said a day after the speech.
He has criticized Cain for taking campaign donations from organizations that support free-trade agreements, also supported by large corporate interests.
“I ain’t taking money from scabs that I can’t stand,” Jackson said. “Or [who] are the reason that, I believe, the American economy has gone into the tank. I only take money from people who support the ideals that I believe in.”
Cain and Raye, common threads
In 2011 and 2012, when Republicans gained control of the State House for the first time in 30 years, Raye, as state Senate president, and Cain, as House minority leader, developed a track record of bipartisan compromise.
Both point to their abilities to broker deals with the opposition party and both say that’s a skill desperately needed in Washington.
“It’s the responsibility of the minority party to lead, as well,” said Cain, who, while considered more moderate than Jackson, has gained both financial support and endorsements from abortion rights and women’s rights organizations.
“As the minority leader, I was someone who took [negotiating] very seriously,” she said. “I was not someone who just said no all the time. When I didn’t like what I was hearing from the governor, the Republicans, we didn’t say no, but we said, ‘Not that but this, and here’s why.’ We offered alternatives.”
While she brokered some deals with Republicans on budgets and taxes, she also helped her fellow Democrats “hold the line” on fundamental issues, including beating back anti-union right-to-work proposals offered by Republicans and rollbacks on women’s reproductive rights.
Cain said “gridlock and personality politics” in Washington are holding the country back, preventing a host of improvements, including student loan debt, road and bridge investment and support for veterans.
“It is personality politics that’s getting in the way of that,” Cain said.
Raye, who is viewed as a moderate, though he received the coveted endorsement of the National Rifle Association, offered a similar assessment.
“The thing that I hear everywhere, everywhere that I go,” Raye said, “is people are sick to death of the dysfunction that is crippling America’s ability to solve problems. There is such a rampant disrespect and bitterness running through the American political process today that it’s a huge turnoff. Many people say, ‘A pox on both your houses,’ because of the crude behavior and bitter polarization in Washington.”
When it comes to the issues, between Cain and Jackson, Jackson may have distinguished himself by saying he would stand firm against any attempts to redesign or eliminate Social Security or Medicare in Washington.
But otherwise, according to Melcher, the political science professor, who moderated a debate between Cain and Jackson, their differences have more to do with how much they are willing to compromise.
“Their positions on most other issues are very, very similar,” Melcher said. “I think the Republican candidates have more differences on issues.”
And while the primary campaigns of Cain and Jackson have been highlighted by some negative campaign ads against Jackson, the animosity between Poliquin and Raye has been more defined.
Fighter or fixer?
Raye said one of his supporters made an analogy that sums up his view of Poliquin.
“Sending Bruce Poliquin to Congress to fix Washington would be like trying to put out a fire with kerosene,” Raye said the man told him. Raye said his efforts as state Senate president to maintain civil relations with the opposition and to be able to work toward meaningful compromise should not be discounted.
“To make declarations that it is my way or the highway, you will soon become irrelevant, because you will not be in a position to solve problems and not [be in a position to] get things done,” Raye said.
As a person who is willing to compromise, “You might get three-quarters of a loaf, and that is going to be better than getting nothing because all you did was put your feet in the sand and neither side got anything.”
Poliquin said he would navigate the gridlock in Washington.
“I understand the issues well, I am passionate about them and I am convincing,” he said.
“There are 435 members of Congress, and most of them hide behind the sofa until right before the next election,” Poliquin said. “Their primary goal as career politicians — their first rule of thumb — is to get re-elected. The way to stand out and represent our 2nd Congressional District well and help our families and small businesses is to stand up in Washington, be very clear about the problems we have and push very hard to fix them.”