WILTON, Maine — In the days leading up to the Tuesday election, one Republican running for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District spoke to supporters on a Franklin County farm. Another was in a tent by a bar on the coast. The other was at the front of a small-town church.
It says a lot about their campaigns for the right to take on U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in a district the freshman Democrat won in a narrow ranked-choice voting race in 2018. President Donald Trump won by 10 percentage points in 2016, giving Republicans hope they can flip it back.
Two of the hopefuls, former state Rep. Dale Crafts of Lisbon and Adrienne Bennett of Bangor, who was the press secretary to former Gov. Paul LePage, are emphasizing personality over policy in the final days. Former state Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn is doing the opposite.
The candidates have largely tried to convince voters they are Trump’s biggest supporters while pressing on specific areas of interest. Crafts is from the party’s more classic evangelical wing while Brakey is libertarian-leaning. The two have clashed on foreign policy. Bennett has fleshed out views as the campaign has advanced absent a voting record.
When you see them in person, the most notable difference between the hopefuls is their approach to connecting with voters. For Crafts and Bennett, there is more of a focus in the final days on making personal connections with voters. Brakey asks for a policy dialogue.
A July 1 meet-and-greet at a farm owned by state Sen. Russell Black, R-Wilton, felt more like a cookout than a fundraiser. Visitors spent time chatting with each other or Crafts, at times indulging the senator’s border collie, Jack, in a stick throw after grabbing cold cuts and fruit.
Crafts says the 1983 vehicle crash that paralyzed him from the waist down has made him an “overcomer.’ His support from the party establishment was on full display. Lawmakers were in attendance, though former Gov. Paul LePage — Crafts’ heavyweight endorser — had to cancel.
“You’ve got a known entity versus people who say they’re gonna do something,” said former Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster of Crafts and Bennett, respectively, “and to me, I’ll stick to the guy that, when times are tough, is going to vote the way I want.”
Bennett leverages her story of growing up “dirt poor” in Waldo County. She has said she showered in a barrel and slept on a blue vinyl mattress pulled from a vehicle. Standing under a tent in the Rollie’s Bar & Grill parking lot last week, Bennett told supporters drinking beer and hard seltzer that she used to be ashamed of her background, but not anymore.
“My story isn’t really remarkable, but it does show who we are as Mainers,” she said. “We are fighters and we make the best out of what we have.”
On Monday night, Brakey stood above a crowd of over 30 people on the stage at a Searsmont church. He asked audience members to introduce themselves and say one thing they’re worried about. Their responses range from political correctness in schools to the coronavirus, abortion and whether support for a “law and order” society is waning.
Brakey came to Maine in 2012 as the state campaign manager for insurgent presidential hopeful Ron Paul. Two years later, he was elected to the Maine Senate, where he sponsored a 2015 bill that repealed Maine’s concealed-handgun permit requirement. That measure has become his calling card, but he has retained an outsider’s message.
“You have to be friends with the politicians to get into leadership and that’s never been my goal,” he said. “My goal has always been to get our freedoms back.”
Something seems to be working for Crafts and Bennett. They were in first and second place, respectively, in a SurveyUSA poll released last week. Brakey, the fundraising leader, was in last place with nearly a fifth of voters undecided. But ranked-choice voting — the method that Golden used to oust Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin — creates more uncertainty around the race.
The three have used similar strategies to get attention in the race, which has been both complicated and overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic that pushed the primary normally scheduled for June into July, shortening the amount of time that the candidates have to catch up to Golden, who had more than $2 million in his campaign coffers as of late June.
At times, it has seemed like the candidates are running against Golden less than Democrats at large, including Gov. Janet Mills, whose virus response included economic restrictions that sparked conservative protests early in the pandemic. Each of the candidates went to some.
Bennett, in particular, has run a canny, attention-grabbing race after raising about a fifth of Brakey’s campaign haul and about half that of Crafts. She recently hit the governor for not wearing a mask in a photo-op in a Facebook post. Early this year, she also hitched herself to hard-line conservative Michelle Malkin, introducing her after venues canceled appearances.
Furor over Malkin’s appearance was fueled by her support of Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes and calling Lewiston a “refugee dumping ground.” Bennett has defended Malkin on free-speech grounds and tweeted on Wednesday that she denounced Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitism.
Bennett is closing with some support in the party’s rank and file. In Belfast, former state Rep. Jayne Crosby Giles said “when the chips are down, she’s going to make things happen,” noting a workmanlike approach that counterbalances a lack of experience in elected office.
“What I really see with Adrienne is a real fire, a real drive,” Giles said. “And does that come from experience? I don’t know, but I think that’s something you either got or you don’t.”
Crafts often nods to LePage by describing himself as a somewhat reluctant candidate at first by saying he was not considering a return to politics until the former governor and other allies contacted him about the prospect. At the farm in Wilton, Jolene Brown of Clinton said his performance in a WMTW debate “sealed the deal” for her.
“He just seems very level-headed and patient,” she said.
Brown compared Crafts to Brakey, who she said was “erratic.” But his supporters praise his directness. Nick Nickerson, of Unity, said at the church that he was drawn to Brakey’s “straightforward” way of speaking, his criticism of Mills and laissez-faire views on health care.
“I think he’ll get down to business in Congress,” he said.