AUGUSTA, Maine — If all three candidates hold their ground, voters in the 2nd Congressional District may play audience to debates featuring only one candidate: independent Blaine Richardson.
There’s a battle going on as the campaign’s three candidates attempt to position themselves to take part only in debates that benefit them. Republican Bruce Poliquin has voiced his reluctance to participate in any debate that features Richardson, a staunch libertarian who could siphon away conservative support.
Meanwhile, Democrat Emily Cain — a front-runner in the polls who could benefit from Poliquin and Richardson splitting the conservative vote — said she’ll only take part in debates that feature all three candidates.
Meanwhile, Richardson, a long-shot candidate by any measure, said he’ll show up anywhere to share his message with Maine voters.
The issue came to the fore when MPBN reported Wednesday that Poliquin’s campaign manager, Matt Hutson, had said the Republican would not attend a debate hosted by the public radio and television network.
In an email to MPBN’s Mal Leary, the network’s debate producer, Hutson said the inclusion of Richardson was a sticking point for the Republican candidate. Hutson said Richardson’s presence would be “an issue” for the Republican, and that Richardson was not a credible candidate “as evidenced by his lack of fundraising and non-active campaign schedule. This last cycle he only raised $275 total. That is just over $3 [per] day.”
When Leary said the network would invite any candidate who qualified for the state ballot — Richardson qualified on June 2 — Hutson responded that “at this time we are unable to commit to the debate.”
Cain and Richardson held a joint State House press conference on Thursday to decry Poliquin’s reluctance to share a stage with the independent candidate.
Richardson, a retired Navy captain from Belfast, said debates should be a “conversation we want to have with Maine people.” To qualify for the ballot, he had to get 2,000 signatures from 2nd District voters, twice as many as partisan candidates.
“I have at least 2,000 voters that wanted to hear my message, and I’m a little disappointed I won’t get to have a debate with the other candidate,” he said.
Cain, a state senator from Orono, had even stronger words to describe Poliquin’s efforts to exclude Richardson: “It’s unfair and it’s wrong. Plain and simple. It’s not the Maine way.”
Despite the emails to MPBN, Hutson on Thursday said he never said Poliquin would not participate, but simply “opened a discussion of criteria for inclusion.”
“Reports to the contrary are not accurate,” he said. However, Hutson also asked all the candidates in the race to agree to a criteria for debates that effectively would exclude Richardson.
Hutson proposed that in order to be included in a debate, any candidate must be polling at at least 10 percent “within any two Maine polls.” That would exclude Richardson, whose name has not even appeared on most 2nd Congressional District polls.
In June 2012, Richardson got 39 percent of the vote in the 2nd District Republican primary that was won by Kevin Raye.
While Cain and Richardson joined forces in condemning Poliquin’s apparent policy on debate participation, their unity did not extend to their own debate policies. Speaking with reporters, Richardson said he’d show up wherever he was invited.
“I’m not worried about whether [Poliquin] chooses to participate or not. I have my message and it isn’t wrapped around his activities one way or another,” Richardson said. “… I’m participating. Are you kidding me? I’ll speak — any opportunity to any Mainer, any time of day.”
Cain, however, pledged she’d only participate if all three candidates were involved.
“No one here is advocating for no debates, we’re advocating for debates that involve all the voices,” she said. “We need to put the pressure on, to say that all candidates that are on the ballot should participate.”
Debates have quickly become a key campaign flash point in the 2nd Congressional District as well as the governor’s race.
Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, trailing in the polls, has called for at least 16 debates — on in each county — starting as soon as possible. Incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud are being hyperselective, however, and each have declined invitations to several debates.
Michaud has said he won’t participate in any debate that doesn’t involve LePage.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.