With Bangor City Councilor Joe Baldacci joining the race last week, the Democratic primary for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District has become competitive.
Baldacci joins Emily Cain, a former legislator from Orono who ran against Republican Bruce Poliquin when the seat opened last year. Poliquin defeated Cain, who turned her attention almost immediately to running against him in 2016.
The primary isn’t for 10 months, but here are five unanswered questions to consider as the contest unfolds.
Will Baldacci’s famous family name help or hinder his chance at the nomination? The Baldaccis have a long history of political involvement in Bangor, but the tenure of Baldacci’s older brother, John Baldacci, in Washington, D.C., and in Augusta propelled the family name into the upper echelons of Maine politics.
Baldacci held the 2nd Congressional District post from 1994 to 2002. He left Congress to run for governor and was elected to two terms.
Five years after his brother left public office, Joe Baldacci stands to benefit from the name recognition that comes with a famous last name, according to Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine.
However, Brewer says the Baldacci name may do more harm than good.
“It will help with name recognition, and some political consultants will tell you there’s no good or bad there — that when it comes to name recognition, it’s all positive,” Brewer said. “But I think if you could look at the favorability ratings on the Baldacci name today, I’d be willing to bet it goes in the wrong direction.”
While John Baldacci is most readily remembered for his support of same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws for LGBT Mainers, other signature policy initiatives underperformed at best: His school district consolidation plan was rendered toothless, and many of the new, larger districts have splintered.
Dirigo Health, a state-subsidized health insurance program, failed to live up to its big billing.
Baldacci also presided over the state during the worst period of the Great Recession. While the housing collapse and ensuing market chaos could never fairly be attributed to Maine’s governor, Brewer said, nobody’s legacy is buoyed by a bad economy.
When asked, Joe Baldacci said he’s proud of his family’s contribution to Bangor and the state, but he points to his own record on the Bangor City Council, where he’s worked on economic development and, more recently, pushed for a local minimum wage increase.
“I understand there are both positives and negatives, but people will vote for me or not based on me,” he said. As for whether John Baldacci would be involved in his campaign, the newly announced candidate said he expected so.
“I’m the youngest of eight kids,” he said. “Being the youngest of eight means all the older brothers and sisters will give you their input whether it’s invited or not, and I’ve invited it.”
Will primary voters be turned off by Cain’s loss against Poliquin in 2014? Cain’s loss last year marked the end of two decades of Democratic control over the 2nd Congressional District.
The party will hope that the presidential election will buoy its candidate’s chances to unseat Poliquin (the district has leaned reliably left in presidential years since the 1990s). But will some Democratic primary voters be hesitant to tee up the same contest that ended badly for them two years earlier?
Poliquin beat Cain 47 percent to 42 percent, with conservative independent Blaine Richardson also on the ballot. But Cynthia Dill, a political commentator and former Democratic state senator who served with Cain in the Legislature and ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012, said one loss doesn’t necessarily beget another.
“I think she will learn from her first run, about how to deal with a candidate like Bruce Poliquin, who was very aggressive and didn’t pull many punches. I don’t think she’ll be impacted too negatively by her [prior] loss,” Dill said. “Emily, in my view, has a strong advantage. She’s done this before. Now she just has to do it a little better.”
Cain said the experience of last year’s campaign taught her valuable lessons, but she’s focusing on the future.
“I am moving forward, focused on November of 2016, stronger than ever,” she said in an interview. “I know from my travels across the district, from meeting thousands of people, that my values and experience align with the people of the 2nd District.”
How important will national groups be in deciding the primary election? One result of Cain’s earlier campaign is her robust network of national supporters.
Cain is widely perceived as the Democratic establishment’s pick, having been recruited early by the party for a second run. Early supporters include EMILY’s List and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
She’s received the tacit backing of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California. And, after Joe Baldacci joined the contest, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, sent out a call for support for Cain.
“Those people usually don’t make uninformed decisions, and don’t devote financial support without good reason to do so,” Brewer said. “That tells you these people have already decided she’s the best candidate in the race. That’s why they recruited her so early, and why they’re backing her so early.”
Doug Hodgkin, professor emeritus of political science at Bates College, said that kind of early support could be a precursor to big outside interest and spending, not only in the general election but, possibly, in the primary.
“Nationalization of these campaigns is something that has become much more prominent over the last few years,” he said. The parties and other large third-party groups “are engaging in recruitment very early on. Part of it is the money you need to run a congressional campaign. The candidates need to start early.”
Which parts of the district will be crucial to winning the nomination? The 2nd Congressional District is famous for being the largest district east of the Mississippi River. Cain and Baldacci are both from Greater Bangor, but it’ll will take much more than support in Penobscot County to win the primary.
Lewiston-Auburn, the district’s largest metropolitan area, will be an important battleground in the race, and Baldacci may have an advantage there, Hodgkin said.
Both are blue-collar towns, where the legacy of abandoned mills looms large over the political landscape. Hodgkin said Cain may suffer in Lewiston-Auburn because of her perceived lack of “real-world” experience.
All the candidates in the race are decidedly white-collar. Poliquin worked in high finance, Baldacci is a lawyer, and Cain’s experience is mostly in academia.
But Cain’s opponents in 2014 — first Troy Jackson, a logger and fellow Democrat who fought her in the primary, then Poliquin — got some traction by pointing to Cain’s sparse private-sector experience, painting her as an out-of-touch elite who knew only academia and politics.
“Baldacci would appeal somewhat more, because Cain has the more intellectual or elite kind of image, and so Baldacci might do better, at least in Lewiston, for the same reasons that [Republican Gov. Paul] LePage did well,” Hodgkin said.
Dill, however, disputed that idea. She pointed to Lewiston’s history of delegates to the Maine Legislature, such as Democratic Rep. Peggy Rotundo, Cain’s ally from her time on the Appropriations Committee, who works as an administrator at Bates College. Or former Rep. Mike Carey, also a Democrat, who practices law.
“Lewiston voters want authenticity, character, values. I don’t think the collar of their shirts matters,” Dill said.
In the end, will it matter who wins the Democratic nomination? Poliquin has made efforts to make sure everyone in Maine knows how hard he’s working in Washington. Few issues percolate in Congress without an official statement from his office, and the representative has been an active member of the House Financial Services Committee.
Plus, he’s bucked his party on a few high-profile issues, including a “no” vote on a procedural move to demolish Obamacare and a vote in support of GMO labelling. He also has continued with efforts by his Democratic predecessor, Mike Michaud, to protect and boost Maine’s manufacturing sector.
Plus, there’s the benefit afforded the incumbent, a phenomenon happily — and frequently — mentioned by Poliquin’s political strategist, Brent Littlefield.
“The last sitting member of Congress from Maine’s 2nd District, of either party, to lose re-election was Democratic Rep. Daniel J. McGillicuddy in 1916,” Littlefield said in an email responding to Baldacci’s candidacy. “That is 100 years ago next year.”
But the armor of incumbency grows stronger over time. At first it’s weak, Brewer said.
“When an incumbent member of the House is most vulnerable is the first re-election,” he said. “If you’re going to get somebody, you’ve got to get them in that race. If you can’t get them there, a lot of times, you’re not [ever] going to.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.