Kevin Raye had a lot going for him in his bid for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, but it wasn’t enough.
Despite four strong debate performances, endorsements by two Maine newspapers, an ad pitch by popular outgoing U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and more, the Republican state Senate president lost to Democratic incumbent Mike Michaud on Election Day.
As of Friday afternoon, with 97 percent of precincts reporting, Michaud won the election by a margin of 16 percentage points — 58 percent to 42 percent.
Raye won in only one of 11 counties in the 2nd District — his home county of Washington. There, Raye prevailed by about 9,300 votes to Michaud’s 5,900, not nearly enough to close a 53,000-vote lead Michaud ultimately scored overall.
Michaud’s win wasn’t as large as previous 30- and 40-point landslides, but it was a better showing than the last election, when Republican challenger Jason Levesque lost to Michaud by only 9 percentage points amid a national wave that swept the GOP to power in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Raye blames Tuesday’s loss on another election wave, one that he says favored Democratic opponents in 2012, including the re-election of President Barack Obama.
At least three political observers disagree with that assertion.
“No wave,” said Sandy Maisel, a political science professor at Colby College and a Democrat. “I do not think anyone else has made that claim.”
Instead, they say, incumbents are just too tough to beat and, without a career-ending scandal, the 57-year-old Michaud might just hold his seat until he decides to retire.
Meanwhile, Raye’s final Senate term ends on Dec. 5, and the 51-year-old veteran politician is weighing options for his political future.
So far, Raye is ruling nothing out.
Riding the waves
At the beginning of the 2012 election cycle, many observers predicted Raye would present the most serious challenge to Michaud since the two faced each other a decade ago.
In 2002 they campaigned for an open seat in the 2nd District and Michaud beat Raye by four percentage points, which remains the closest race of Michaud’s career as a U.S. representative.
Since then, Michaud has won re-election handily five times. In 2004, he won 58 percent of the vote in a three-way race; 70 percent in 2006; 67 percent in 2008; and 55 percent in 2010 amid a wave of Democratic defeats in Maine and throughout the country.
Raye said the wave turned in 2012, and it took his campaign by surprise on Election Day.
“We felt like the wind was at our backs,” he said. “It was, in fact, a very strong headwind for Republicans.”
Raye characterized the election as the third in a series of wave elections. “Wave elections happen, but it’s unusual to have three in a row,” he said.
In 2008, voters overwhelmingly favored Democrats. In 2010, voters favored Republicans. And, in 2012, voters favored Democrats again, Raye contends.
In New Hampshire, for instance, both incumbent U.S. representatives were defeated by Democrats. In the Maine Senate, four Republican incumbents were unseated. Republicans also lost seats in the State House and ceded control of both chambers to the Democrats. In the presidential race, seven out of nine battleground states broke for Obama.
Mark Brewer, a political science professor at University of Maine, agreed that there were three wave elections in a row, but he said they began in 2006 and ended with 2010.
Jim Melcher, a political science professor at University of Maine at Farmington, sees it both ways.
“After a big wave election like 2010, there is almost always some regression back to where things had been, and that can look like a wave,” he said. “Undoubtedly, it was not a great year to run as an Republican, compared to 2010.”
Instead, the professors believe Raye’s loss has more to do with the power of incumbency.
“Very few incumbents, especially in the House, get beat,” Melcher said. “Scandal is the biggest reason candidates lose. A big wave election like 2010 can do it as well — but it is hard to do.”
“Incumbents who stay out of trouble, stay in touch with their district and generally vote the district’s interest win — virtually always,” he said. “The quality of the opposition to good incumbents matters little. Voters know the brand, have supported it already — in Michaud’s case many times over — and are not going to change just because someone is smoother or more eloquent.”
Brewer said Raye was a strong candidate, but “Michaud was also a very strong and popular incumbent. Those are always tough to beat.”
Despite six wins for Michaud, Raye doesn’t believe the incumbent is unbeatable.
“He certainly has endurance and he deserves a lot of credit to be able to win as many consecutive elections as he has won, but nobody’s bulletproof. I learned that as a little kid when Margaret Chase Smith was defeated,” he said. “She was beloved, an institution and trailblazer. If she can be defeated, anyone in public office can be defeated.
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as being bulletproof. I think there are ebbs and flows of electoral politics, and in this particular year, there was an advantage in Maine to being a Democrat; and that’s evident from Barack Obama on down to the Maine House of Representatives.”
During four terms in the state Senate, Raye has been popular in his home district — District 29 — which consists of Washington County and parts of Hancock and Penobscot counties.
In 2010, Raye won 71 percent of the vote in District 29. In 2012, however, Raye lost some support in those same towns. Raye beat Michaud in the district, but his overall support was down 10 points, to 61 percent.
Maisel said the apparent reduction in support might have less to do with the candidate than the gravity of the position he had sought.
“People see state reps and state senators as one thing, neighbors doing a job for a while; and congressmen as something different, a step up,” he said.
At the same time, Maisel said he isn’t sure what makes a candidate appear viable for a federal seat. It’s difficult to define, but you know it when you see it.
Melcher thinks voter turnout is the reason for any reduction in support for Raye, not a perception of inadequacy. Turnout was up 14 percent in District 29 from 2010.
“Michaud’s been popular throughout the district, too,” Melcher said. “I see more Michaud strength than Raye weakness.”
Raye isn’t sure what the future holds. He’s termed out of the Senate, and, for now, he’s returning home to Washington County where he and his wife, Karen, run Raye’s Mustard Mill.
He’ll also keep his options open and may pursue other work.
“It’s tough for a married couple to squeeze two incomes out of a small business, so I’m going to be considering what’s next and what opportunities may present themselves,” he said.
Becoming a lobbyist isn’t off the table, he said.
“That’s not at the top of my list. If there was something I felt strongly about, I would consider it; but it’s not my first choice,” he said.
Raye also hasn’t ruled out running for the state House of Representatives at some point, but not anytime soon.
“Serving in the Maine Legislature takes its toll on you financially,” he said. “Certainly, being a legislator in Maine is not a living, so I think I’ve reached the stage in life where I need to think about my own financial future. That’s taken a back seat for a number of years.”
Raye also won’t rule out a bid for governor.
“I’ve learned in this business you never say ‘never,’ but it’s not something I’m thinking about right now,” he said.
Meantime, Raye said he’s looking forward to a “normal life” and he has no regrets about running and losing.
“I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to run for this office,” he said. “It’s a time in my life I will always treasure.
“Every Saturday from June until the end of September, I was in a parade somewhere. Every Saturday. It was a lot of fun to see these Maine towns on days that were very special for them, when people were festive and happy. It was a really great glimpse into what a terrific state this is.”
Ben McCanna — 861-9239