Dale Crafts delivers his opening statement during Thursday night’s Republican debate featuring the three nominees looking to unseat Jared Golden from the U.S. House of Representatives. On the left is Adrienne Bennett and on the right is Eric Brakey. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Sharply diverging lines were drawn on foreign policy during the first debate for a trio of Republicans who hope to win Maine’s 2nd District U.S. House seat.

Speaking before about 80 people in a debate sponsored by the Androscoggin Republican Committee, each of the contenders vying in a June primary for the right to take on U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a first-term Democrat, sought to align themselves with President Donald Trump and vowed to stick with him on issue after issue.

What the country should do beyond its borders, though, drew the one clear difference of the 90-minute showdown at Lewiston Middle School.

Dale Crafts, a former state lawmaker from Lisbon, said the “world economy would collapse” if the United States ever followed the suggestion of former state Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn to close America’s military bases around the world and bring all of the country’s troops home.

Crafts said Russia, China and terror groups would flourish and Israel would be “wiped off the face of the map” without a strong U.S. military presence to hold the country’s foes at bay.

Steve Bannister, chairman of the Androscoggin County Republican Committee, holds up a copy of the USA Today newspaper announcing the acquittal of Donald Trump before a debate Thursday at Lewiston Middle School. The debate featured the three candidates vying for the Republican nomination to try to unseat Jared Golden in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Looking at Brakey, Crafts said, ” I hope we don’t send him to Congress.”

Brakey countered that “we’re getting ripped off around the world” by backing the agenda of dubious allies like Saudi Arabia and spending a fortune to defend Europe.

“We need to put America first,” he said, “and stop doing the bidding of other people” while pursing “trillion dollar wars that are putting America last.”

Brakey said that American troops ought to be on the border “and have their guns pointed south” instead of getting involved in foreign adventures with no clear mission.

The other candidate in the race, Adrienne Bennett of Bangor, said foreign affairs is often messy but it’s important to recognize the country’s military is busy protecting Americans.

“They are patriots,” she said, adding that she trusts Trump as commander-in-chief to do what’s right.

Each of the contenders said they anticipate a tough race against the Democrats this year but plan to win it by a wide enough margin to avoid a ranked-choice voting scenario like the one in 2018 that required a second round to determine the winner.

“It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be brutal,” Bennett said.

Crafts said, though, that Golden won’t emerge the victor.

“I fit the district,” he said, “He doesn’t. He’s a one-termer.”

Brakey said he took on Golden many times when both served in the Legislature — and defeated him repeatedly on the issues. He can do it again on the campaign trail, he said during his two-minute opening statement.

Moderator Matthew Gagnon, chief executive officer of The Maine Heritage Policy Center, praised Brakey for hitting the time limit mark exactly.

“I practiced,” Brakey said, smiling.

Bennett said she is the only one of the three challengers who has been for Trump “since day one.” Crafts and Brakey took longer to come around.

She said if she is elected she is going to “stop the gun grabbers,” “break through the fake news,” push for construction of a border wall and wholeheartedly endorse the president’s agenda.

Crafts promised to bring his savvy as a businessman to Washington to make deals in pursuit of more conservative policies in the nation’s capital.

Brakey said he would be a champion of freedom who would wrangle power away from the bureaucracy.

Each of the three hailed Trump’s acquittal this week on the two impeachment charges brought by the House — one of them approved by Golden — and attacked Democrats for pushing the issue.

Bennett termed the impeachment proceedings “an absolute farce.” Crafts called it “a hoax” made up by Democrats, the so-called Deep State and the FBI. Brakey called it “a witch hunt from day one” and insisted some of those pursuing the president “should go to jail.”

The GOP hopefuls criticized government spending, vowed to try to tackle the growing national debt, endorsed tariffs in pursuit of better trade deals and agreed on the need to control immigration better.

One flash point arose near the end of the debate when Crafts complained that Brakey keeps saying he got constitutional carry passed in Augusta to allow Mainers to carry firearms without a permit. Crafts called it “very offensive” of Brakey to ignore the hard work that he and other GOP leaders did for years to lay the groundwork for the measure’s adoption.

“Eric did a great job” on the issue, Crafts said, “but he does not get all the credit.”

Brakey said he did not get it done alone. He called it “a group effort” made possible by “thousands and thousands of Maine people” that he helped organize to pressure wary legislators.

Bennett said that not every battle takes place in the Legislature, citing her own success behind the scenes during her seven-year stint as press secretary for Gov. Paul LePage in preventing the release to the Bangor Daily News of a list of every Mainer with a concealed weapon permit.

Republican voters in the 2nd District will decide on June 9 which of the three should be their candidate to face Golden, a Lewiston resident, in the November 3 general election.

There are no independents in the race so far, a striking contrast to 2018 when two unaffiliated hopefuls grabbed enough first choice votes to force a second round of counting in the nation’s first ranked-choice election for a federal office.

Golden, a two-term state representative who grew up in Leeds, defeated two-term incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin by a narrow margin in one of the closest races in the country two years ago. Poliquin opted not to run again for his old seat because he wanted to spend time helping his ailing, elderly parents.

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