MILBRIDGE, Maine — The first thing that comes to Don Terrell’s mind when asked about Maine’s 2nd Congressional District election, a tight race that has heated up over the past two weeks, is the series of attack ads on his television.
“Everything’s so negative,” said Terrell, a Steuben resident, while standing outside the Shop ‘n’ Save here on a recent Sunday. “Instead of just saying what they can do, it’s just what the other’s not doing.”
He has found it hard to believe claims the major-party candidates — Republican Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Emily Cain — make about each other.
“Is it true? I don’t know,” he said with a shrug.
Terrell’s outlook apparently resonates with the vast congressional district’s potential voters, who will decide Nov. 4 between Cain, Poliquin and independent Blaine Richardson, who has yet to run television ads.
The candidates have starkly different backgrounds and political points of view. Poliquin is a conservative investment banker turned state treasurer who is running on a platform of cutting taxes. Cain is a liberal state senator who’s running on her legislative record and bipartisan credentials. Richardson is a largely unknown right-wing independent, a retired Navy captain who is fiercely opposed to big government.
Though Cain and Poliquin each have raised more than $1 million for their campaigns and another $2 million has been spent by outside groups on their behalf, large portions of the district still were telling pollsters they are undecided a month before the election. A poll conducted in late September by Critical Insights said 16 percent of likely voters surveyed were undecided. Another by Pan Atlantic SMS, also from September, showed that 43.1 percent of voters were unfamiliar with Poliquin, while 53.8 percent said they were unfamiliar with Cain.
“I’m still sorting through these two,” said Jim Ash, general manager of the Bluenose Inn in Bar Harbor. Like Terrell, Ash feels that the negative ads are dominating the message. “Both parties are doing it and it’s disturbing,” he said.
Political scientists in Maine see the number of undecided voters as indicative of not having an incumbent in the race, as well as a new choice for the district among three more ideologically distinct candidates than those who have run, and won, in the past.
The seat has been held by Democrat U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who vacated it to run for governor, for 12 years.
The candidates are introducing themselves to the 2nd District largely through campaign ads, TV appearances and fliers, an approach many voters say leads them to mistrust the portraits of the candidates that are emerging.
Ronald Schmidt, a political scientist at the University of Southern Maine, said undecided voters are possibly “weighing what is in fact a real difference” among the candidates. Given the vastly different governing styles and platforms of Poliquin and Cain especially, voters simply are taking their time to choose.
UMaine political scientist Mark Brewer said voters who are used to electing relatively moderate candidates — such as Michaud and Democrat John Baldacci before him — are now faced with a choice between candidates who are more firmly rooted in their party’s platform.
“Part of me is thinking that maybe the chunk of undecideds is larger because they are both so different from each other and so different from the incumbent,” he said.
Several other people interviewed for this story said they saw both candidates as party people, which some political observers say doesn’t always fare so well in Maine.
“There is a sizable segment of the population that does not trust either party,” said Newburgh resident Vic Berardelli of the Republican Liberty Caucus.
He said the candidates are particularly challenged because voters in the district are widespread, which means they’re difficult to reach and difficult to characterize.
“I’ve run a congressional campaign in this district,” he said, referring to Republican Jason Levesque’s unsuccessful campaign against Michaud in 2010. “It’s a juggling act to stay true to your values but know there are some things you can say in one part of the district but you can’t say in another.”
Many of the attack ads now running are not from the campaigns, but by political parties and outside groups. For example, the biggest spender in the race so far is the National Republican Congressional Committee, which pledged to spend $1.5 million on TV ads to paint Cain’s views on energy as making the United States more dependent on foreign oil.
Cain’s campaign has countered the ads by emphasizing her support of expanding natural gas availability in New England. In debates, she also has called Poliquin out for his negative style.
Her campaign, however, has funded negative ads of its own. In one, Cain says Poliquin “pressured town officials to lower his taxes” while he was in office.
The ad cites emails between Poliquin and an assessing agent in which Poliquin signs his name “Bruce Poliquin Maine State Treasurer.” In the emails, Poliquin asks the assessor why the value of his property increased.
Matt Hutson, Poliquin’s campaign manager, pointed out that the emails were sent from Poliquin’s private account and the title under his name is an automatic signature.
“If you read the letter, the facts are on his side,” he added. “He’s the one unfairly paying the higher rate than what everyone around him is paying.”
Brewer’s take on the negative ads was that they may not be as useless as some voters claim.
“People use them for a very simple reason,” he said. “They work. The second that they stop working, they’ll stop using them.”
But Schmidt said the negative ads actually may be encouraging a large portion of the population to tune out, contributing to that high number of undecided voters.
“If Candidate A tells me really bad things about Candidate B … over time I will find the whole thing is a tawdry affair, and I’ll feel really alienated,” Schmidt said. When that happens, he said, voters’ natural inclination is just to check out.
This statement seems to reflect the stance of Jean Santiago of Harrington. She said that though she leans Democratic, even after seeing television ads, she has remained undecided.
“I think they’re ridiculous — a bunch of hearsay,” she said. “I don’t know why these politicians campaign that way.”