Jay Allen, the Republican candidate in Maine’s 1st District race, in Saco on Friday Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

After nearly a quarter century in uniform, Jay Allen has an understandable tendency to perceive and talk about his latest personal mission through a military lens.

When contemplating whether to run for Congress, for instance, the political newcomer analyzed what he regarded as Democrats’ dangerous ideologies through a “threat perspective.” Allen speaks often of liberty and freedom, as well as his pledge at the start of his career as an Army doctor.

“I took an oath to defend the Constitution and what I saw was the Democrats were destroying the Constitution or, in my view, trying to destroy the Constitution and individual rights and individual freedoms,” said Allen, the Republican candidate for Maine’s 1st Congressional District. “And I said somebody needs to do something.”

Fourteen months and one pandemic later, the 59-year-old midcoast resident, who retired from the Army as a full colonel, is still trying to gain name recognition less than a month before the election in his race against Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree.

As if unseating a six-term incumbent wasn’t challenge enough, Allen is a conservative, Trump-Republican candidate in a decidedly left-leaning district during an election year dominated by Maine’s high-profile Senate race.

Allen, who now works as a family physician in Waldoboro, is undeterred.

“I think we will win,” he said in an interview. “I think we will take people by surprise and I think we will win.”

While Allen predicts his campaign will be propelled by excitement at the top of the ticket for President Trump, presidential polling as well as the 1st District’s voting history suggest a difficult path lies ahead.

Trump trails Democrat Joe Biden by double digits in Maine’s southern congressional district in several polls. And while the president handily won Maine’s rural 2nd Congressional District in 2016, he lost the 1st District by an even larger margin.

A Republican has held the 1st District seat for only two of the past 34 years, and Pingree captured 59 percent of the vote in a three-person race in 2016.

The only polls in the 1st District, conducted by Portland-based Digital Research for the Bangor Daily News, showed Pingree with more than twice as much support among likely voters, although the sample sizes in both surveys were small. The well-respected election prognosticators at Cook Political Report list the seat as a safely in Democratic hands.

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, described Allen as “calm and kind” as well as extremely accomplished yet without pretense or hubris. Savage said Congress or any institution “would love to have someone of his qualifications” but acknowledged the 1st District is a difficult race to win, especially during a pandemic that limited campaigning.

“But he has worked really hard,” Savage said. “There are sometimes opportunities in these sleeper elections. … I’m not going to predict that, but I’m not going to rule it out.”

Allen’s conservative campaign is focused on issues such as lower taxes, health care, the Second Amendment and constitutional rights. The Waldoboro physician has also criticized Gov. Janet Mills’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic and, in a stance that puts him at odds with the international medical establishment, has vocally opposed mandatory face masks.

“Masks do not stop this virus – they may slow it down but they will not stop it,” he said.

After graduating from high school in New York, Allen earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University.

Concerned about mounting student debt after his first year at what is now Drexel University College of Medicine in Pennsylvania, Allen accepted an Army Health Professions Scholarship that covered the cost of his medical education and was commissioned as an officer. He ended up embracing the military lifestyle, however, and spent more than half of his 23-year Army career working as a doctor overseas with his wife and six children.

Part of that service was spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Allen said seeing U.S. service members’ literal sacrifices shaped the views on freedom and liberty that are central to his campaign.

By the time he officially retired from the Army in 2017, Allen and his wife had already moved into a house they had inherited in New Harbor on the Pemaquid peninsula.

Allen has never held political office before, and his decision to run wasn’t necessarily motivated by Pingree’s record. Instead, he was alarmed by what he views as the “socialist” positions on issues taken by contenders for the Democratic presidential primary.

But Pingree, he said, is part of “the problem” because she is a self-described progressive. So Allen dismissed advice to run for a state legislative seat and opted to challenge the incumbent despite what he acknowledges are major financial and logistical hurdles.

As of June 30, Allen had raised $42,092 and had just under $11,000 in his campaign coffers – compared to nearly $350,000 in Pingree’s war chest, should she need it.

“What I have is conviction that our country needs to be safe and I have to do everything I can to save our country,” Allen said. “I cannot sit by and let progressives destroy our country.”

Such fiery rhetoric about progressives destroying the country and wanting to rip up the Constitution is unlikely to sit well among many in the district’s left-leaning population centers stretching from Greater Portland up the coast to Camden.

He opposes Medicare for All or a voluntary public option buy-in for Medicare and views government-controlled, socialized medicine as an opening to “tyrannical purposes.” Instead, Allen supports returning more control over health care decisions to patients and their doctors, in part by increasing transparency in medical pricing and expanding health savings accounts.

Allen also pledges to work to cut taxes, defend the Second Amendment and fight against what he sees as the left’s political attacks on free speech and religious liberty.

Last month, Allen made a political statement by attending a service at Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford to show support for Todd Bell, the small church’s pastor. Bell had presided over a Millinocket-area wedding ceremony in August that has been linked to Maine’s largest COVID-19 outbreak, and then held maskless indoor church services as the virus was spreading in Sanford.

“Like me, Pastor Bell is a freedom fighter,” Allen wrote in a Sept. 20 post on Facebook. “He took a stand against Governor Mills’ tyranny and is now being villainized because of it. He is being solely blamed for a recent outbreak of the virus here in the State of Maine but that is a gross misrepresentation of the truth.”

Allen is also a vocal opponent of the Mills administration’s executive orders requiring Mainers statewide to wear masks or cloth face coverings when shopping or in public spaces where physical distancing is not possible.

In an interview, Allen alleged that Mills and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, had “mismanaged this COVID thing from start to finish.” The statewide mask mandate, Allen said, “communicates a higher risk than we actually have” and causes unnecessary fear in areas where the virus poses little threat.

Maine has among the lowest COVID-19 infection and death rates in the country – trends that other public health officials attribute to Mills’ handling of the crisis and Mainers’ cooperation.

Allen stressed that he is not anti-mask – only masking mandates – and that he will wear one when needed or appropriate. But he also defended his decisions not to wear masks at several Republican political events, saying he knew he was virus-free and assumed others would either not attend if they were ill or take precautions.

“Healthy people don’t have the virus, healthy people don’t spread the virus and healthy people should not be forced to wear a mask,” he said. “How do you know if you’re healthy? And I say it’s a numbers game” based on virus prevalence in an area.

Instead, Allen subscribes to the argument that enough Americans need to become infected and recover to achieve “herd immunity” – a theory that some medical experts predict would lead to many more deaths than the 214,000 recorded in the U.S. to date.

Allen’s views on universal mask-wearing run counter to the overwhelming consensus among public health officials from the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations.

“Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting,” Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. CDC, said in July. “All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families and their communities.”

But Allen dismissed those positions as “political” and suggested that government officials “should be communicating risk and then letting the individual person manage that risk.”

Pingree, meanwhile, said the idea of a physician questioning the mask recommendations “is a show-stopper to me” and said it is unfortunate politics have influenced the debate about managing the pandemic.

“Given all that we know and even the events this past week at the White House, … it just doesn’t make sense to me,” Pingree said. “These aren’t questions about your opinion.”

This article was updated at 2:10 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, to correct an error about Jay Allen’s medical education. He accepted an Army scholarship that allowed him to continue his medical studies.

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