September 21, 2019
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Pingree’s challengers take shots at each other in 1st District debate

Robert F. Bukaty | AP (2); Joe Phelan | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP (2); Joe Phelan | AP
Maine's First Congressional District candidates include incumbent Chellie Pingree (from left), Marty Grohman and Mark Holbrook.

Democrat Chellie Pingree’s two challengers seemed to take more shots at each other than the incumbent during a Monday debate in the race for Maine’s 1st District U.S. House seat.

Independent Marty Grohman, a state lawmaker from Biddeford, interjected during the very first question posed to Republican Mark Holbrook, setting the tone for a night that included several mid-question arguments between the two.

Monday’s hourlong debate, hosted and televised by Portland NBC affiliate WCSH 6, was the second of three scheduled during the campaign, following one last week hosted by ABC affiliate WMTW. The third debate is scheduled for Oct. 30, organized in part by Maine Public and held at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

Pingree is serving her fifth term in Congress, having won her five previous races in the left-leaning district convincingly. On Monday, the incumbent staked out her position as a direct opponent to Republican President Donald Trump, saying voters should send her back to Washington as part of a resistance to the administration.

Holbrook, in contrast, championed Trump at every turn — on the topics of increased tariffs, foreign affairs, taking apart the Affordable Care Act and education policy, among others. When asked by moderator Pat Callaghan to name the worst thing the president has done in office, Holbrook couldn’t come up with anything.

Grohman insisted the partisan divide between Pingree’s positions and Holbrook’s is paralyzing Congress, which is precisely why voters should support him instead.

“We are sick of the two big political parties tearing each other apart, because when that happens, nothing is getting done,” he said. “We can’t end this partisanship by sending more partisans to Congress.”

While the two challengers sought to differentiate themselves from Pingree on certain key issues, they sparred more directly with each other.

In his first question of the night for Holbrook, Callaghan asked the Republican to explain his Oct. 6 post on the social media platform Twitter comparing Pingree to notorious terrorist Osama bin Laden — over her opposition at the time to Trump’s controversial Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — Holbrook said he’s “pretty proud of that one.”

That drew an out-of-turn response from Grohman: “I have to say, Mark, I thought that was entirely unfair. Wherever you come out on all this, Congresswoman Pingree has been an excellent and lifelong public servant, and I did not agree with that at all.”

Holbrook shot back: “I didn’t ask for your opinion, Marty.”

The Biddeford independent jumped in again when Holbrook was voicing his support for Trump’s tariffs on China, which caused the economic giant to retaliate with tariffs of its own that drove down sales of Maine lobster there.

“You want to put fishermen out of business?” he asked, cutting into Holbrook’s remarks.

When Grohman said in the debate he wants to lower taxes to help businesses grow, the Brunswick Republican challenged the assertion.

“This is rich that Marty is calling for tax cuts,” Holbrook said. “He voted for Medicaid expansion, and that’s not a tax cut for anyone.”

On another question, when the Republican claimed human contribution to climate change is “not settled science,” Grohman cut in with: “So you don’t care about the environment at all?”

“You’re going to have to do better than that, Marty,” Holbrook retorted, adding that he’s “the only one talking about Portland Harbor pollution.”

With ranked choice voting in play in the three-way race, there may be more riding on the battle for second place even if Pingree — who maintains a huge fundraising advantage — takes first on Election Day.

Using ranked choice voting, voters can rank all three candidates in order of preference.

If none of the candidates receives a majority of first-place votes on Election Day, the candidate who places third will be eliminated and the second-choice votes on that candidate’s ballots will be reallocated to the remaining two candidates.

That’s left hope among Pingree’s opponents that, as long as the challengers can hold the incumbent below 50 percent of the vote on Election Day for the first time, one can leapfrog her to victory from the second position.

This is Holbrook’s second time challenging Pingree — in 2016, he garnered about 42 percent of the vote in a two-way race.

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