Republican 2nd Congressional District candidates Adrienne Bennett, Dale Crafts and Eric Brakey (from left to right) appear at a debate at Lewiston Middle School on Feb. 6, 2020. Credit: Caitlin Andrews / BDN

Former state Sen. Eric Brakey was the main target of his two opponents running for the Republican nomination in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in a Tuesday debate two weeks before Election Day that broke little new ground on policy.

It was the first televised event featuring all three candidates and the first to be held in person in any high-profile Maine race during the coronavirus pandemic. Candidates were left alone with a moderator in the WMTW studio in Portland and were spaced apart. Brakey agreed to the debate after declining others using video-conferencing software.

Brakey and his two opponents, former state Rep. Dale Crafts and real estate agent Adrienne Bennett, have largely made their campaigns about proving loyalty to President Donald Trump, a Republican who won the 2nd District by 10 points in 2016. Despite their similarities, the three come from divergent backgrounds and differ somewhat on policy.

Crafts, 61, is a Lisbon businessman who served four legislative terms and is endorsed by former Gov. Paul LePage, while Bennett, 41, is a former TV reporter who lives in Bangor and was LePage’s longtime press secretary. The libertarian-leaning Brakey, 31, of Auburn, lost to U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, in 2018.

The debate covered familiar territory, touching on candidates’ support for border control, Trump’s trade war with China, a desire to see an agreement reached between Bath Iron Works and striking employees and support for law enforcement while backing some police reforms.

But Crafts and Bennett spent plenty of time pointing out Brakey’s opposition to the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package that was widely backed in Congress, even as Bennett dinged the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits that was a key component of the legislation.

At the same time, Crafts dug in on criticism of Brakey taking too much credit for Republican legislative victories, echoing a LePage Op-Ed in the Bangor Daily News last week. Brakey said LePage’s memory must “have been a little fuzzy,” saying he was able to get a 2015 law repealing Maine’s concealed-handgun permit mandate passed by whipping up public support.

“Republicans have been trying to get this done for decades, and they didn’t get it done, even when Republicans controlled the House and the Senate and the governorship,” Brakey said, referring to Crafts’ time in the State House from 2008 to 2016. “I got it done in a time of divided government because I got the Maine people involved.”

Crafts later accused Brakey of gamesmanship when questioned about a $1,000 donation to Brakey’s campaign, saying he agreed to donate tables and chairs to Brakey’s campaign that he otherwise would have thrown away, then was surprised to see them show up in a finance report.

Crafts said there was “just a little bit of politics going on” there, while Brakey responded that he was just following federal campaign finance laws.

Brakey has differentiated himself the most from the other GOP candidates on policy. Buoyed by his unsuccessful statewide run, he has led the pack in fundraising and benefited from more than $150,000 in spending from the conservative Club for Growth and other outside groups.

Brakey is an ally of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and backs Trump’s stated goal of removing U.S. troops from the Middle East. It has put him at odds with Crafts, who holds more traditional conservative foreign policy views and has warned that a hasty retreat could cause instability.

Bennett has pitched herself as the most consistent ally of Trump, saying she backed him early in his 2016 primary process. Brakey and Crafts initially backed other candidates and appeared on a slate of state convention delegates loyal to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz that year, but they have been outspoken supporters of the president since he was elected.

She used the bickering between Crafts and Brakey to differentiate herself as not being a “career politician,” often touting her poor upbringing in Waldo County. She brushed off LePage criticisms that she is inexperienced for the job while tying herself to some of his legislative victories.

“We’ve got career politicians who are fighting over who did what, when, where and why,” she said. “We need people in Congress who are fighting for everyday Mainers, average Mainers.”