Former state Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn (left) and former state Rep. Dale Crafts of Lisbon (right) Credit: Composite photo / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Foreign policy has become the key issue in the final days of an increasingly nasty Republican primary set for Tuesday in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, particularly between the hawkish front-runner and a non-interventionist rival.

Former state Rep. Dale Crafts of Lisbon has maintained views on war and defense that are the mainstream of his party while feuding with the libertarian-leaning former state Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn over who can stake the best claim to President Donald Trump’s “America first” agenda, which has vacillated between those two policy poles during his tenure.

That fight heightened on Saturday after The Intercept, a progressive news site, published an article on a Maine operative who is a registered agent for Saudi Arabia and the owner of a Republican consulting firm that employs Crafts’ campaign manager and has ties to his family.

Crafts and Brakey have clashed on foreign policy before, including in a February debate in the race. Real estate agent Adrienne Bennett, who was the spokesperson for former Gov. Paul LePage, the third candidate in the race, has taken a middle-ground position.

On Saturday, Brakey called on Crafts to sever ties with the firm and wondered on Twitter whether Crafts “will put American interests first” if he is elected.

“Dale’s foreign policy views are Dale’s foreign policy views,” retorted Keith Herrick, Crafts’ campaign manager. “He made them very clear in the first debate and this is nothing more than a desperate attack at the last minute to tie in a false narrative.”

Kathie Summers-Grice, the CEO of Eaton River Strategies, is paid $10,000 per month to advocate for the authoritarian monarchy through a contract with an Iowa firm, according to federal filings. She worked for the Saudi regime between 2016 and 2017 as well.

She is well-known in political circles after working for candidates including former Maine Senate President Kevin Raye and former Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, Crafts’ cousin, whose publicly funded 2018 gubernatorial campaign paid $108,000 to Eaton River, where Mason is now a partner.

Crafts’ 2020 campaign has paid Eaton River $35,000 for mail and consulting services, according to filings. Summers-Grice said her work for Saudi Arabia is firewalled from Mason and Herrick and that she has never discussed it or U.S. foreign policy with the candidate. Her involvement with the campaign has been limited to authorizing an invoice for mailers, she said.

Brakey has directly criticized Saudi Arabia, a strategic U.S. ally that has faced international condemnation for human rights violations including the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He led an unsuccessful 2016 effort to pass a Republican National Committee plank calling for declassifying documents on potential Saudi ties to the September 11, 2001 attacks that were declassified soon after.

In February, he said the U.S. is being “ripped off by the world” and should “serve itself” and not countries like Saudi Arabia when joining conflicts, while Crafts said the U.S. economy would “ collapse tomorrow” if the country pulled its troops from around the globe.

Brakey spokesperson David Boyer said the Maine media has failed to vet Crafts and regardless of Summers-Grice’s exact role with the campaign, he said someone “getting paid by Saudi Arabia has an interest in making sure the guy who wants to cut their foreign aid doesn’t win.”

Bennett tweeted Saturday that she represents a “sensible pro-America, pro-military policy” including an end to “forever wars.” In a text message, she said there is “much more to national security” than saying “we must or mustn’t pull our troops” while diplomatic tools should also be emphasized.

Brakey entered the campaign with high name recognition after a 2018 run against independent Sen. Angus King and has benefited from most of the $1.3 million in outside spending the primary from allied groups including the liberatarian-leaning Protect Freedom PAC and the Club for Growth, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But key attack lines have emerged against Brakey at the close of the campaign and put him under the gun. A nondescript outside group that popped in in June and can shield the names of donors until after Election Day has spent nearly $345,000 to attack Brakey, including for opposition to Trump in the 2016 primary.

Crafts, who has the notable backing of LePage and many others in the party establishment, has seemed to benefit. He led the only independent poll of the race released Wednesday by SurveyUSA and FairVote, an electoral reform group, with 37 percent support.

Ranked-choice voting, however, makes Tuesday’s primary uncertain as the candidates joust for last-minute momentum. In the poll, Bennett saw 25 percent to Brakey’s 19 percent with 19 percent undecided and four-fifths of Republicans in the 2nd District waiting to vote in-person.

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...