Liz Caruso speaks at a podium with signs with her name on them behind her.
Liz Caruso, Republican candidate for Maine's 2nd Congressional District, speaks at the Republican state convention, Saturday, April 30, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

WATERVILLE, Maine — As a dozen supporters ate ice cream on Monday evening, Liz Caruso readied a pitch on why Republicans voters in the 2nd Congressional District should pick her.

Her stump speech hardly touched on her opponents but highlighted her credentials as a town official in western Maine and her focus on hot-button conservative issues. In response to a voter question about which other Republicans she would align herself with, she named hardline Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri.

The crowd at the Elks Lodge in Waterville — in the 1st District but adjacent to the 2nd — was smaller than organizers had hoped for, but those present were eager to hear from Caruso, who is facing former Rep. Bruce Poliquin on June 14. The winner will challenge Rep. Jared Golden, a Democratic target for Republicans in a district won twice by former President Donald Trump.

An underdog who got her start in Maine politics during the fight over the Central Maine Power Co. corridor, Caruso is a different face in an election cycle dominated by well-known politicians. She elicited cheers at the Maine GOP convention last month when she called for protecting the First and Second amendments and electing leaders who will “fight like their life depends on it.”

Her campaign is a test of how far a candidate can go with a word-of-mouth campaign against an opponent with broad name recognition and 75 times more money. It is also a test for Poliquin, who struggled to rally the Republican base in his 2018 election loss and seems to be looking past next month’s primary to what will likely be a competitive race with Golden.

“She’s ​​definitely got an uphill battle,” said Tom Saviello, a former state senator who worked with Caruso on the anti-corridor referendum and speaks highly of her, but backs Golden.

Caruso’s stump speech in Waterville did not mention Poliquin. Instead, she ran through her biography, noting she earned an engineering degree and an MBA but left that career to become a registered Maine guide and open a bed and breakfast. She homeschooled two sons and became a selectman in Caratunk, a Somerset County town with a population of 81.

Her town was among the first to rescind its support for the $1 billion CMP corridor project in 2018. Caruso became a leading anti-corridor voice, including during the 2021 referendum fight. She says that experience led her to question what she thought she knew about politics.

“I realized that our government is not run the way we thought it was,” she said. “And really, it’s a good old boys club run by special interests groups [and] lobbyists, and they’re not listening to their constituents. And I know it’s far worse down in D.C.”

In an interview at the Elks Lodge while the Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” played in the background, she lumped Poliquin in with that establishment, characterizing him as “more of a career politician” whose business experience was on Wall Street, not in Maine.

“He doesn’t really live and work in the district,” she said.

Bruce Poliquin, Republican candidate for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, waves to a supporter at Dysart’s on Broadway during a campaign stop Thursday in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Poliquin, who served as state treasurer before running for Congress, grew up in Waterville and bought a home in the Penobscot County town of Orrington last year but owns a waterfront mansion in the 1st District town of Georgetown.

He has all but ignored Caruso so far. His campaign to win back the seat he lost to Golden in 2018 launched radio ads this week aimed at the general election, touting his ties to Trump and former Gov. Paul LePage while decrying inflation and the “liberal Pelosi-Biden agenda.”

“Only Bruce Poliquin has a proven record of supporting the 2nd Amendment, of voting to protect life, and of supporting Governor LePage’s efforts to cut taxes and rein in wasteful spending,” campaign advisor Brent Littlefield said in a statement.

Without name recognition or significant money for ads, Caruso started her campaign visiting local party meetings, where she sometimes spoke alongside Poliquin. That was where Al and Tammy Fereshetian first heard her and came away impressed.

The retired couple drove from Turner to Waterville to hear from Caruso again on Monday. Tammy said she appreciated the way the candidate talks about education because she is worried about schools focused on “social engineering” rather than fundamental subjects.

Poliquin “is a very good person,” said Al Fereshetian, although he was bothered by the fact that he had not agreed to Caruso’s challenges to debates. While he would back Poliquin in a general election, he thought Democrats seemed to know how to beat the former congressman.

“Liz truly has a better chance,” he said.

Addressing a group of supporters, Caruso acknowledged the challenge of getting her name out to voters against a prominent opponent. She has been operating on a shoestring, with no paid employees and just $25,000 raised through the end of March compared with nearly $2 million for Poliquin. The former congressman is backed by national Republican groups.

Liz Caruso, Republican candidate for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, acknowledges applause at the Republican state convention, Saturday, April 30, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Debates could provide one platform for Caruso to appear beside Poliquin in front of a broader audience. A Poliquin spokesperson said there were no widespread calls for debates from local Republicans and the former congressman has been taking questions at county meetings. Poliquin declined to participate in a forum that would have been hosted by News Center Maine.

Caruso’s tone on the issue was more measured than a few of her supporters, one of whom elicited laughs by jokingly referring to Poliquin as a “squirrel.” The candidate did not bring up Poliquin until asked about him, but she told supporters to expect a “red wave” this fall.

“There are people all over that are fed up and want to take our nation back,” she said.