After seeing 2nd Congressional District hopeful Troy Jackson debate his primary opponent last week, Priscilla Featherson leaned toward supporting the logger, a rural labor Democrat. But his past stances against abortion and same-sex marriage gave her pause.

While the University of Maine at Farmington junior is on the opposite side on those stances, she demurred when asked about their impact in Jackson’s primary against Emily Cain, saying Maine voters “have a tendency to be able to look past that kind of stuff” to vote for the person they best connect with personally.

Although it’s a campaign sure to be dominated by talk of jobs and the economy, Cain and Jackson’s voting records on social issues stand out, especially for a Democratic primary: Cain has been pro-abortion rights and for same-sex marriage while Jackson has voted for measures seen as anti-abortion and against marriage equality in 2009.

The district has tended to be more conservative than the rest of Maine on the two issues over the years.

In 2012, 53 percent of the towns now making up the 2nd District voted against gay marriage although it passed by that margin statewide. There has been little polling on abortion in Maine over the years, but a 2005 poll commissioned by a Portland television network showed that residents in Maine’s northern half were slightly less likely to identify as pro-abortion rights than those in the south.

Two political science professors, Mark Brewer at the University of Maine in Orono and James Melcher at UMF, said the areas where Cain and Jackson agree — like they do mostly on jobs and the economy — will matter more than social issues in the primary, on June 10.

At public forums, Cain has cheerfully pointed out their differences on the issues.

“In some primaries for office, it is hard to see where candidates differ on key issues,” she said in an interview last week. “In this campaign, differences exist and I believe they are important.”

But Jackson says he now supports same-sex marriage and won’t vote to restrict abortion rights if he gets to Washington. People in the district, he said, are worried about other things.

“What people are talking about first and foremost is economic prosperity and people having the ability to raise their family and get good jobs and have a good education,” he said.

‘CONFLICTED AT TIMES’

Jackson was born to a 16-year-old mother in a Catholic family in Maine’s heavily Cahtolic St. John Valley. His parents’ rushed marriage ended in divorce, circumstances which he said have shaped his beliefs. Cain, by contrast, has a staunchly pro-abortion rights record.

Jackson has gained high marks from anti-abortion groups, having voted for a 2011 bill that would have required a 24-hour waiting period before a woman could get an abortion and a 2013 bill that would have made doctors tell women more about an abortion before they could get one, among other bills. Cain, by contrast, has a staunchly pro-abortion rights record.

In an online questionnaire administered by Project Vote Smart, Jackson identified in 2012 as anti-abortion, saying abortion should be illegal in all cases besides rape or incest, even when a woman’s life is endangered. He also said public funds shouldn’t fund abortions or go to organizations that perform them.

However, he voted for a bill that was vetoed this year and opposed by anti-abortion advocates in part because it would have funded contraception for low-income women through Planned Parenthood, which performs abortions.

Despite his voting history, Jackson said in Congress, he wouldn’t vote to restrict abortion rights and wants to ensure economic security for working mothers.

“My votes are basically because of my personal background,” Jackson said. “I certainly am conflicted at times, but the No. 1 thing that I hope is that any woman who makes that choice isn’t doing it because they’re afraid they’re not going to have what it takes to raise that child.”

Also, he now calls his 2009 marriage vote “the worst vote I ever took.” He said he supported same-sex marriage when it won statewide at the ballot box in 2012.

Jackson was the only Democratic senator to vote against it in 2009, telling the press he thought it was what his constituents in a socially conservative district wanted. But he said he changed his tune after a meeting with a group of gay Aroostook County residents.

“Here are these people that had fought to get marriage equality and I was the only one to vote against it,” he said. “I just came to realize, as far as people wanting to get married, I don’t care who they are as long as they’re not hurting each other and taking care of each other.”

Predictably, Jackson’s opponent said she doesn’t think his stated positions match his record.

“It’s the responsibility of elected officials to lead all of the time, particularly on fundamental issues like choice and equality,” Cain said.

‘A STEEP LEARNING CURVE’

Cain got early endorsements from pro-abortion rights groups, including EMILY’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America. For NARAL, it’s just one of two congressional races nationwide in which they’re endorsing against a Democrat, according to spokeswoman Samantha Gordon. It’s the only House race.

Jackson isn’t getting the same help from an opposition group, the National Right to Life Committee, which has already endorsed Republican Bruce Poliquin, running in a primary against the generally pro-abortion rights Kevin Raye. To that group, Jackson doesn’t have a perfect record, voting against a bill last year that would have mandated written consent from a parent or guardian before a girl under 17 could get an abortion, among some other bills.

Still, Erica West, NARAL’s political director, said his assurances that he wouldn’t vote against abortion rights in Congress fall flat with her.

“When you take bad votes in the Legislature and in Congress, as we assume he would, that is tantamount to taking away women’s rights,” West said.

Maine’s premier group boosting same-sex marriage, EqualityMaine, hasn’t been outspoken. Spokesman Ian Grady said they’re considering whether or not to endorse in the primary and general elections in the 2nd District.

He said the success of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-rights movement in Maine “has been about embracing those who support our issues” — whether they’re new to supporting the cause or not.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the case of the sitting 2nd District congressman, Democrat Mike Michaud, now running for governor.

He came out as gay last year and got EqualityMaine’s endorsement in January. That angered independent Eliot Cutler’s rival gubernatorial campaign, which highlighted votes Michaud took in the 1990s in the Maine Legislature against measures that would have barred sexual orientation discrimination.

Also, in 2012, NARAL described Michaud as “mixed-choice” on abortion. This year, it endorsed him, citing his “evolution” over the years toward a pro-abortion rights stance. Michaud took many votes against abortion in Washington between 2003 and 2006, after which he began voting differently.

Melcher, the UMF professor, said while there are people who care about social issues enough that they will vote based on candidates’ stances, many voters “don’t have a strong sense of the differences between the two candidates on those issues.”

“Both candidates have placed a great deal of emphasis upon economic issues, where their views are pretty similar,” Melcher wrote.

Colby Seams, an active Democrat from Anson leaning toward supporting Jackson in the primary, isn’t worried about his stances. He likened his stance on abortion to Michaud’s and Seams said “there’s a steep learning curve on the gay marriage issue.” Years ago, he said, he may have voted against it himself.

“But he’s able to change his mind and cast a different opinion,” Seams said of Jackson. “It shows his ability to adapt and grow.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652 | [email protected] | Twitter: @mikeshepherdme@mikeshepherdme