From left, Adrienne Bennett, Eric Brakey and Dale Crafts. File photos

Like so much else this year, the Republican 2nd District congressional primary campaign has been an odd one.

The three candidates have spent months jostling to portray themselves as the best ally for President Donald Trump, who won the sprawling, rural district by a wide margin in 2016, and assailing Gov. Janet Mills as “a dictator” for imposing certain public health measures to thwart the spread of COVID-19.

Until recently, they rarely mentioned U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, the first-term Lewiston Democrat they hope to unseat in the general election.

First, though, the Republican voters will choose Tuesday who they want as their standard-bearer in November: former Auburn state Sen. Eric Brakey, former television news reporter Adrienne Bennett of Bangor or businessman Dale Crafts of Lisbon.

Brakey, who lost a U.S. Senate bid two years ago, has easily outpaced his two opponents in fundraising. What’s unclear is whether his treasury is worth more than former Gov. Paul LePage’s endorsement of Crafts, whom he recruited for the race.

The only independent poll, by SurveyUSA in partnership with FairVote the first week of July, found Crafts in the lead with 37% of the vote compared to 25% for Bennett and 19% for Brakey.

At a Maine Public debate Thursday, Brakey said that if he loses “I guess I would have to stand back and watch Jared Golden win a second term, which would be a real shame.”

Crafts, 61, who has been the most laid-back of the three, said that all Brakey has done through the campaign is “attack, attack, attack.”

During the Maine Public debate, Brakey said that Crafts, Bennett and Golden are all “corporate socialists” who favor big spending, give only lip service to the Constitution and support “never-ending, pointless wars.”

Bennett dismissed Brakey, who is 31, as “a career politician.”

“He wants this so badly because it’s all he’s ever known,” she said.

Bennett, 41, a former press secretary for LePage, vowed to be a reliable ally for Trump and to help him “build the wall, fix a broken health care and welfare system,” support gun rights, oppose abortion and fight “fake news.”

Crafts called himself “a fiscal hawk” who would do what he could to block government spending and hold down the soaring national debt.

During the campaign, all three have said Social Security needs to be overhauled, immigration restricted and Trump supported.

When they have mentioned Golden, they have taken issue with his vote to impeach the president and insisted he is too close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

Crafts said Golden “votes with Pelosi all the time,” though the Democrat’s first vote, which proved irrelevant, was to choose someone else as speaker. Golden was also one of only three Democrats to vote against one of the two impeachment counts.

Issues that have divided them are few.

Two Republican congressional candidates in Maine’s 2nd District, Adrienne Bennett and Dale Crafts, were among the thousands who attended a rally for President Donald Trump in New Hampshire in February. Submitted photo

Perhaps the sharpest split came on foreign policy, where Brakey seeks to have American troops brought home and foreign aid slashed.

Crafts called it “a huge difference” from what most Republicans want. He called Brakey’s stance “really a radical idea” that would abandon overseas allies and put America at risk.

Bennett and Crafts’ support for the $2 trillion measure approved almost unanimously by Congress in March to keep the economy alive during the pandemic drew scathing criticism from Brakey.

He called the plan, crafted in part by Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, “a terrible way to do it” and bemoaned the excessive spending that helped pour money into corporate coffers.

Bennett said the measure also saved 27,000 small businesses in Maine.

Crafts said Congress faced a choice: approve a costly economic bailout or allow the economy to plummet in a free fall. He said the proposal that was adopted was “better than the alternative.”

Adrienne Bennett, a 2nd District congressional candidate, records a Facebook Live video on Lisbon Street in Lewiston in May. Steve Collins/Sun Journal file photo

Many of the traditional avenues for candidates to get their message out during the race were closed off, including door-to-door campaigning and talking directly with audiences.

All three turned instead to social media, where Bennett and Brakey were especially active, and to advertising. While the candidates’ own ads were mostly focused on touting themselves, Bennett at one point issued one that showed Brakey wearing a clown nose.

Meanwhile, dark money super PACS have poured at least $500,000 into the primary, most of it to tout or trash Brakey.

The Club for Growth, a business-oriented group, devoted considerable resources to bolstering Brakey.

One mysterious group, on the other hand, went after him harshly in recent days. Brakey blamed John Bolton, a man he called a “snake,” who worked as Trump’s national security advisor, for sponsoring them.

For most of the race, Bennett and Crafts have been on good terms. She said he’s become a friend.

Crafts told WGAN on Friday, though, that she’s turned on him a little in the final days of the race.

“Both Eric and her are desperate now because they’re down in the polls,” Crafts said. “It’s politics.”

Along the campaign trail, only a couple of moments stood out.

 

Perhaps the most memorable was Brakey’s decision to show a video of himself on Twitter with something akin to a flamethrower that spit fire across a parking lot somewhere in Maine.

The accompanying text said, “@RepGolden, you’re fired. #mepolitics.”

Another occurred in April when Bennett, faced with the question of attending the first protest in Augusta demanding the state reopen, opted to stay away.

“I have made the decision to participate in the protests virtually, using the megaphone of social media,” she said, holding a sign in her own home, a move that undercut any message that it was safe to reopen the state after a month of stay-at-home orders.

The 2nd District, which leans Republican, has been tough on both parties in recent elections.

Mike Michaud, a Democrat, held the seat for years before giving it up to seek the governor’s office in 2014. He fell short against LePage.

His departure opened the door for Republican Bruce Poliquin to snatch the seat in a close contest against Democrat Emily Cain, who tried without success to take it from him two years later.

In 2018, Golden, who fought as a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan and Iraq, squeaked by Poliquin to grab the seat for the Democrats in the nation’s first ranked-choice election for a federal office.

This year, with Trump again on the ballot, few doubt it could be a close contest again for Golden, who has a campaign war chest of $2 million ready to deploy against whichever challenger emerges on Tuesday.

Only Republicans are eligible to vote in the GOP primary. Polls are open until 8 p.m. Tuesday.

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