Maine Republicans should be mostly united going into their state convention later this week with the possibilities of re-electing Gov. Paul LePage and taking back legislative majorities in their sights.
The only division could be seen when Bruce Poliquin and Kevin Raye, the divergent primary candidates for the Republican nod in Maine’s 2nd congressional district, take the stage at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center to speak on Saturday.
The party has good reason to be excited about their hopes for the general election: With Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud’s exit from the 2nd district seat to run for governor, this year may be Republicans’ best shot to win the seat in more than a decade.
“I’m a great believer in primaries,” said Rick Bennett, chairman of the Maine GOP. “If done right, as they most often are, they can be very strengthening for the person who wins.”
Michaud’s district leans Democratic, a boon to the two candidates fighting for the party nod to replace him, Emily Cain of Orono and Troy Jackson of Allagash. But both are sitting state senators who haven’t run races in areas any larger than their current districts.
Raye, an ex-Maine Senate president from Perry, lost to Michaud in 2002 and 2012. Poliquin, a former state treasurer from Oakland who grew up in Waterville, has lost two primaries for statewide office — for governor in 2010 and U.S. Senate in 2012.
Voters know both Republicans reasonably well, so while the convention will provide Raye and Poliquin a chance to connect with activists, it probably won’t help or hurt their primary fortunes, said Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington.
“Unless one of them makes a serious mistake, I don’t think it will have that much bearing,” he said.
Poliquin’s staff wouldn’t divulge what the candidate will discuss at the convention with campaign manager Matthew Hutson saying only that he’ll tell attendees why he’s the clearest choice for the seat, while Raye spokesman Mike Leavitt said the candidate will discuss “a positive vision for the 2nd congressional district, emphasizing “common-sense, free-market solutions” to problems facing district voters.
“With Kevin being born, raised, educated, living in the 2nd district his whole life, he’s uniquely positioned to talk about these issues,” Leavitt said.
That was an unsubtle dig at Poliquin in a campaign that has already gotten chippy with less than two months left until the June 10 primary. Raye’s staff has often attacked Poliquin’s recent move to Oakland from Georgetown, a coastal town in the 1st district, while Poliquin has assailed Raye’s long career in politics.
Bennett wasn’t worried about that, saying he’s “glad both of the candidates have their blood up” and “passionately believe they’re the best candidate,” and that after the primary, the winner and loser will unite.
But there’s still plenty to be decided before then — namely the type of Republican the party wants.
Raye, while emphasizing conservative fiscal achievements in the Legislature, has struck a more compromising chord in the vein of his moderate mentor, Olympia Snowe, the last Republican to hold the 2nd district seat. In 1995, she moved to the U.S. Senate, where she served until 2013. Raye worked for her in both chambers.
Poliquin has touted his anti-abortion stance as a wedge issue with Raye, who is pro-abortion rights. He has touted a record of fiscal conservatism, rooting out perceived wasteful spending in government as treasurer.
But the candidates are somewhat similar, too. They oppose the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health care reform law. They have also extolled the virtues of lower spending and less regulation, and both should hit that theme in their speeches.
Jim Fossel of Gardiner, chairman of the Maine Federation of Young Republicans, said he’d like to see both candidates focus on fiscal issues, specifically opposition to the Affordable Care Act, because that’s where he sees the best argument to attract young voters.
Still, he values compromise, saying the district “needs someone who will bring people closer together, not drive them farther apart.”
Jonathan Reisman, a professor at the University of Maine at Machias who ran as a Republican for the 2nd District seat in 1998 and is leading party members in Cooper, the small Washington County town he lives in, into the convention, said he wants to hear the hopefuls assess the district’s unique issues.
He said he donated $100 to Raye early in the campaign and is leaning toward voting for him, but he’s not sure after Poliquin impressed him at a forum last week between the candidates that he moderated at the university.
Still, he thinks Poliquin may be at a disadvantage.
“Bruce has shown he has command of the big issues — both of them do — but I don’t think Bruce has really lived in rural Maine,” Reisman said. “He’s got to show the 2nd District that he knows what it’s about. Kevin doesn’t have to show that.”