With the primary elections fast approaching (finally), most eyes in Maine are going to be focused on the Republican primary in the 2nd Congressional District. Although there are, as usual, a scattered handful of legislative primaries all over the state, most of them matter more to the individual candidates than to the overall partisan makeup of the Legislature. It also doesn’t appear as if either of the other Democrats running for U.S. Senate, Betsy Sweet or Bre Kidman, have much of a chance against Sara Gideon. Two early polls showed her with a massive lead, and nobody’s bothered to take a look at it since.

Just as with the Democratic Senate primary, there haven’t been many public polls of the Second Congressional District. The one that was released back in June, though, showed an interesting result, giving Adrienne Bennett a six-point lead over Eric Brakey, with Dale Crafts only two points behind. A poll released last week gave Crafts a double-digit lead, with Brakey in third, but nobody was over 50 percent. It’s clear from both polls that the race is relatively fluid and there are still a huge number of undecided voters.

Lately the campaign has taken a nasty turn, as negative mailings have hit the district going after both Eric Brakey and Adrienne Bennett. As is often the case with these attacks, they’re more than a little ridiculous. Paid for, according to the Bangor Daily News, by a newly created mystery political action committee, the mailers targeting Brakey have attempted to paint him as a “Never Trump” Republican, and show him shoulder-to-shoulder with liberals like Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While Brakey has been more willing than some Republicans to criticize Donald Trump, and didn’t support him in the 2016 primaries, he’s hardly a “Never Trumper”: He did end up voting for Trump in the general election. Criticizing Brakey for not being on board with Trump on day one is completely fair; lumping him in with Democrats in Congress who oppose Trump at every turn is not.

The attacks on Bennett, meanwhile, were sent out by Club for Growth Action, a conservative super PAC that has endorsed Brakey. They zero in on her inability, in an interview on Maine Public Radio back in March, to name specific federal spending that she would cut. To be sure, that’s not a good look for her: It’s reminiscent of Rick Perry’s infamous moment during the presidential debate when he couldn’t name three federal agencies he’d eliminate. That flub helped to sink his campaign, while Bennett’s has gone largely unnoticed. She was probably helped that it happened early in the race, and on public radio rather than in a debate or on a conservative talk show.

While this may seem like an innocent mistake from a first-time candidate, the Club for Growth Action doesn’t think so. Instead, they’ve been using it in their mailers to paint her as a political insider and big spender who doesn’t really want to cut spending at all. That’s clearly several steps too far. Describing as a liberal anyone who worked for Gov. Paul LePage doesn’t make much sense. It’s also unfair to label her as an insider, given that her first political job was for LePage and this is her first campaign.

One might presume that, since nobody has really decided to go after Dale Crafts, the other campaigns don’t view him as much of a threat. That may be the case, or it may simply be that Brakey and Bennett were targets of opportunity. Certainly all three candidates have been embracing Donald Trump in this campaign, so accusing one of them of being a “Never Trumper” is an effective campaign tactic. It also makes sense that Club for Growth Action would pick up on Bennett’s interview, since cutting federal spending is their top issue.

What will be interesting to see is how all of this plays out in a three-way race that will almost certainly involve ranked-choice voting being invoked. In races with more than two viable candidates, it’s all too easy for negative tactics to backfire. We’ve seen that happen time and time again with independents in Maine elections, either helping them win or almost doing so. That’s even more true in a primary, where loyal partisan voters are willing to give another candidate a chance.

These disingenuous attacks may well succeed in hurting their target, but in a multi-candidate race that’s not necessarily going to be enough.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at: 

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