AUGUSTA, Maine — With the chips stacked against him in his challenge of fourth-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, Republican Mark Holbrook is convinced there are factors lurking outside conventional wisdom that will lead to his victory.
“If I didn’t think I could win this, I wouldn’t be here,” Holbrook, a clinical counselor from Brunswick, said. “Chellie Pingree’s voting record is sufficient to be able to show people of the 1st District the differences between us and to establish that she does not represent the whole district. She represents a tiny, tiny fraction and I think her constituency fits on the head of a pin.”
Election results from the last decade indicate it would be a very large pin.
Pingree, whose political career began in the Maine Senate in 1992, won her first congressional bid in 2008 by nearly 10 percentage points over Republican Charlie Summers. She tallied nearly 57 percent of the vote in 2010, a year in which Republicans scored sweeping victories throughout Maine, including the election of Gov. Paul LePage and gaining control of both legislative chambers for the first time since the 1970s.
After winning her first re-election bid, which political observers see as typically the last time a House incumbent is vulnerable, Pingree cruised to victories with 65 percent in 2012 and 60 percent in 2014. Other than Summers, who was elected by a Republican-controlled Legislature to serve as secretary of state for two years, Pingree’s opponents have quickly disappeared into political oblivion after losing to her.
Wide margins like those may say as much about Maine’s strongly liberal 1st Congressional District as they do about Pingree. The district, which encompasses southern and coastal Maine, has been represented by Democrats since 1986 with the exception of two years under Republican James Longley Jr., who rode a national Republican wave in 1994 to a single term. He lost two years later.
There is little indication that the district demographics are changing. To Pingree, that means a steady electorate that’s not necessarily left-leaning.
“I feel like I have been a good fit for the district,” Pingree said. “Maine people are not really liberal or conservative. They tend to be really common sense, practical speakers.”
Dark horse Holbrook
Holbrook has been many things, though with the exception of his role as chairman of the Brunswick Republican Town Committee, he has not held elected office. He has been a law-enforcement officer, has worked in the nonprofit sector and now runs his own business as a clinical psychologist serving law enforcement, veterans and active-duty military personnel.
In this year’s Republican primary, Holbrook narrowly topped Ande Smith, who was well-funded, had establishment support and was widely seen as the favorite. The tension between the two candidates increased during the campaign, culminating in an incident in which Holbrook refused to shake Smith’s hand during a televised debate.
Holbrook is anti-abortion and advocates for immigration laws that he says are more strident than those of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. He decries the national debt and supports lower taxes, less government regulation and more conservative fiscal policies. He framed himself during the primary as hard-right but he said Thursday that labels don’t fit him.
“I don’t believe in partial-birth abortion. I don’t believe in regulating an industry into oblivion. I believe in the Constitution, that it’s the law of the land and we ought to abide by it,” he said, arguing that President Barack Obama has exceeded his constitutional power with various executive orders. “I don’t think that’s ultra right-wing conservative stuff. I just think it makes sense.”
Holbrook said in a Congress that’s awash with lawyers who are trained at settling differences adversarially, his training as a clinical psychologist would make him effective at finding common ground. But that common ground would be far to the right of where Pingree stands.
“I’m certain I can go down there and make some changes,” he said. “I think there are people in Washington who are more conservative than they vote and are just looking for someone else to stand with.”
What do establishment Republicans think of him?
If the flow of money is any indication, they’re pessimistic about his chances. While a combined $2 million in independent expenditures from national political groups has already been spent on both sides of the 2nd Congressional District race between incumbent Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Emily Cain — and heaps more money pledged — none has come Holbrook’s way.
“Their thought is ‘Holbrook who?’” Holbrook said. “They just don’t see a pathway for my success because they only see things in one way.”
There’s no question Pingree supports Democratic ideals and said some of her top goals include food security, raising the federal minimum wage, establishing single-payer health care, opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade dea l and instituting stricter environmental oversight to combat climate change.
According to data from the website Govtrack.us, nearly 60 percent of bills she has sponsored involved natural resources, the armed forces and national security, agriculture and food. She is a member of the House Committee on Appropriations and its agriculture subcommittee.
Govtrack’s analysis gave Pingree relatively high marks for bipartisanship, as measured by co-sponsored bills, but she ranked poorly in regards to authoring bills that went into law, reflective of the fact that Democrats are a minority in the House.
Pingree said her best work in Washington has been on agriculture and veterans issues, climate change, student loan debt and military sexual trauma, though she takes more pride in the work she does directly with Maine people and businesses. On that front, she made national headlines earlier this year with her complaints to the Marine Corps on behalf of a Maine woman who had what was considered a disqualifying tattoo. Pingree’s lobbying caused the Corps to change its uniform policy.
Pingree counter-attacked Holbrook’s claims about her political extremism.
“From what I’ve heard from my opponent, he denies the existence of climate change and is anti-choice and anti-marriage equality,” she said. “I don’t think those are things that are a good fit for the 1st District.”
Neither candidate would discuss how they plan to spend their campaign cash between now and the Nov. 8 election, but one thing is clear: Pingree has the edge. According to Federal Election Commission records, Pingree was sitting on nearly $500,000 in campaign contributions at the end of June, compared with less than $1,500 for Holbrook.
Pingree said that though her campaign activities will accelerate when Congress recesses next month, she doesn’t anticipate a flurry of spending.
“It’s not as if the campaign starts six weeks before Election Day,” she said. “It’s about always trying to be in touch with your constituents.”
Holbrook said, “I’d rather stand up and have people throw rocks at me than ask people for money.”
“We’re going to win this,” he said. “But I don’t believe we’re going to get a whole lot of help from anybody from outside Maine.”
Pingree and Holbrook have already appeared together once, last week during an E2Tech election forum at the University of Southern Maine. They have at least four debates scheduled for October, including a televised debate on Nov. 1.
Some recent polls have shown the presidential race in Maine tightening, but with the 1st District reliably for Hillary Clinton. What little polling that has been done on the 1st District contest shows Pingree with a comfortable lead. A third candidate, Libertarian Jim Bouchard of Brunswick, is running as a write-in but is not considered a factor in the race.
Unless Pingree’s lead shrinks, expect the incumbent to keep a low profile, spending relatively little on ads — as she did in 2012 and 2014 — and framing her campaign on personal interactions more akin to constituent service than aggressive politicking.
Conversely, with Republican national and state political machines much more focused on the 2nd District, Holbrook will continue relying on his own resources to attract voters to his decidedly underdog campaign.
Though the power of incumbency and projected heavy voter turnout in a presidential year clearly favor Pingree, 2016 has the potential to be atypical. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rise on a wave of discontent among conservatives is a bit of deja vu for Mainers who have twice elected Republican Gov. Paul LePage and his anti-government agenda.
Holbrook combines elements of Trump and LePage in his message, but both men are hugely unpopular in the 1st District, highlighting the long odds the Republican challenger faces.