Jon Courtney has spent the last several months canvassing southern and coastal Maine. He’s visited small businesses, spoken to chambers of commerce, touted his accomplishments as a state lawmaker and business owner. He has tried and tried to make a name for himself in a race that most people either are not paying attention to or assume has already been decided.

“I knew what I was getting into,” Courtney said in an interview last week. “But this has been a very rewarding opportunity for me. A guy from Sanford, Maine, a guy who works cleaning people’s clothes, to have the opportunity to run is a tremendous honor and privilege. No one owes me anything.”

It was an uphill battle the moment Courtney, a Republican from Springvale, decided to challenge two-term incumbent Democrat Chellie Pingree, of North Haven, for Maine’s 1st District U.S. House seat.

Courtney’s entrance into the race came during a frenzied period in March that followed U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s sudden announcement that she would retire rather than seek another term. Snowe’s departure created an open Senate seat for the first time since the mid-1990s and it brought a host of prominent Republicans, Democrats and independents into the discussion of who might replace Snowe in Washington.

The biggest Republican names all jumped into the primary race for the U.S. Senate seat. Secretary of State Charlie Summers came out of that battle on top and now is in a three-way fight against Democrat Cynthia Dill and Angus King, former two-term independent governor.

Courtney never considered the Senate seat, but Republicans needed a candidate in the 1st District House race, too. For a few days, Pingree strongly considered stepping down from her House seat and run for the Senate instead. A possible open House seat prompted several Democrats to consider a run in the 1st District if Pingree jumped. Once King entered the race, though, Pingree stayed put.

In an interview last week at her congressional office in Portland, Pingree said she enjoys serving in the House but still feels like a “child.” She’s confident about her chances at reelection but is not taking anything for granted

“Most people know me, so they’ll either say ‘Yeah, I’m in favor of keeping her,’ or ‘No, it’s time to go,'” she said.

For most of the summer and fall, the 1st District race has been an afterthought, an undercard to the Senate race, the presidential race and a statewide ballot question on same-sex marriage. Even Maine’s 2nd District U.S. House race, between incumbent Democrat Mike Michaud and Republican Kevin Raye, has generated more interest, mostly because it’s expected to be a closer race.

Every recent poll has shown Pingree with a commanding lead, as high as 30 percent. She has raised nine times as much money as Courtney, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Political watchers say Courtney simply doesn’t have much of a chance against a popular incumbent Democrat in a Democratic-leaning district.

“I don’t think it would be that compelling a race without all this other stuff going on,” said Ron Schmidt, a political scientist at the University of Southern Maine. “It isn’t enough for people to be voting against Pingree, they have to rally around her challenger. That hasn’t happened.”

The uphill challenger

Courtney, 46, is pretty standard Republican. He favors smaller government and less regulation; opposes same-sex marriage and abortion. He has spent the last eight years representing the Sanford area in the Maine Senate, including as Senate majority leader for the last two.

Courtney was born, raised and still lives in York County. He owns a small chain of laundries and his legislative agenda in Augusta often reflected that small business experience. The consensus on Courtney is that he’s a nice guy who is willing to work with the other side but almost always votes with his party.

“I got into the race for the same reasons (Snowe) got out, because Washington is broken,” he said.

In this campaign, Courtney said he has worked hard to generate support “the old-fashioned way,” by pounding the pavement and knocking on doors.

“We’ve focused on going across the district. We’ve been in almost every corner, on every Main Street, talking to people. And not telling them what we think they want to hear but listening to their concerns and their hopes and dreams from the future.”

His campaign style is not that much different from his many campaigns for state Legislature — with one exception.

“I can’t get to all the doors,” he said. “That’s probably the most frustrating thing.”

With only $110,100 raised so far, Courtney doesn’t have the money for splashy TV ads. His campaign did spend $25,000 on airtime on cable TV, which is less expensive than broadcast TV. The ad that ran last month was largely biographical and touted Courtney’s time as Senate majority leader.

Courtney almost didn’t make it this far. In the June primary, he only narrowly edged Patrick Calder, a merchant mariner with no political experience.

But there is a sharp contrast between he and Pingree on nearly every issue.

Courtney’s biggest concern, and the one he hears most from voters, is the country’s growing debt.

“I understand that we’ve already passed it on to our children, but I’ll be darned to see us pass it on to our grandchildren,” he said.

Courtney’s biggest challenge might be lack of name recognition.

The powerful incumbent

At a campaign event last week in Portland, Pingree systematically worked a packed room at an upscale restaurant on Commercial Street. Attendees sipped from wine glasses and sampled hors d’oeurves. Pingree leaned in often as people tried to talk over the constant hum of voices.

When it came time for her to address her supporters, she didn’t even mention her opponent. Pingree seemed more concerned about making sure President Barack Obama gets reelected and helping Democrats in Maine take back control of the House or Senate.

She said she doesn’t mind that her race has generated little attention so far.

“I would say that’s every candidate’s dream come true … to have your race treated a little more low-key,” she said.

When Pingree, 57, isn’t representing Maine in Washington, she runs a small inn and restaurant on North Haven. Like Courtney, she spent four terms in the Maine Senate and left as Senate majority leader. She ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in 2002.

Pingree is seen a progressive Democrat. She supports same-sex marriage and access to abortion. She has championed the Affordable Care Act but would rather see a single-payer, universal system. She favors tax increases on wealthy Americans, a category she likely falls into, especially now that she’s married to financier S. Donald Sussman.

Sussman is a contributor to Democratic and charitable causes and the majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which owns The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and other media outlets in Maine.

Pingree has become the Democrat that most draws the ire of Republicans and conservatives in Maine for her liberal views. That has only heightened since her marriage to Sussman and since Sussman took over ownership of MaineToday Media. She said Sussman has changed her life but he hasn’t changed who she is and what she believes in. She’s seen as smart and feisty. Earlier this year, she went toe-to-toe with Maine Gov. Paul LePage, her political opposite, over proposed cuts to MaineCare.

“I don’t go out of my way to disagree with the governor on things that don’t have some federal role,” Pingree said. “We talk to his administration about things that are not always contentious. We’re not out to get them.”

There is less anti-incumbent sentiment this year than two years ago, when Pingree won 57 percent to 43 percent over Republican Dean Scontras.

Still, Pingree said Congress’ approval rating in no higher now than it was in 2010. She has expected Courtney to be more active in challenging her.

“It hasn’t been contentious but it’s not over yet,” she said.

The forgotten race

As Maine voters continue to be assaulted almost daily by television ads and campaign literature in their mailbox, the 1st District race has been largely left out of the discussion, until recently.

Pingree purchased ads that began running last week. Courtney has not been back on the air since September but said he has plans for another late television ad buy.

The two candidates squared off in their first debate on Thursday at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. The hour-long debate showcased the differences between Pingree and Courtney but was a mostly cordial exchange.

There are two additional debates scheduled: on Tuesday, and a week later, on Oct. 30.

Pingree has a sizable advantage in fundraising but unlike other races, especially the three-way Senate race, there hasn’t been any outside money spent. That’s a clear sign that most feel the race has been decided: Republican political action committees are unlikely to send money to race where the candidate is a longshot and Democratic groups are using resources elsewhere.

Schmidt said he’s been surprised that Pingree has run such a laid-back campaign. Incumbents, he said, “tend to run scared.”

But Pingree hasn’t had to go on the offense. Courtney has not gone too negative, a tactic Scontras and his supporters tried. It’s simply not in Courtney’s style to attack his opponent. The worst thing he says about Pingree is that she is vice chair of the House’s progressive caucus.

“I need Democratic support to get elected,” he said. “All I want is for them to consider me, even if they might not agree with me on everything. We’re up against a very strong, well-financed opponent, but we’ll be there on Nov. 6 and you never know.”

Schmidt said bigger names in the Maine Republican Party — Summers or state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin — may have made the 1st District race closer, but said neither likely would have won. He said the best Courtney can do now is build name recognition for himself for a possible future run. Since he’s still a few years shy of 50, that seems possible.

Pingree, meanwhile, is often mentioned as the top Democrat in Maine to consider a run for governor in 2014. The state party needs a strong candidate to remain relevant at that level, particularly after 2010, when Libby Mitchell placed a distant third to Gov. Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler.

Pingree said she’s not thinking about the 2014 Maine governor’s race. She’s thinking about the U.S. House and whether her party will regain control after Nov. 6. If that happens and Pingree gets reelected, she could be in a position to have a stronger voice.

 

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