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Along the craggy coasts of northern Maine and amid the vast rural forests of the Pine Tree State's 2nd district, Republicans see opportunity.
Although the 2nd voted 55 percent for Barack Obama in 2008, Republicans hope the rightward shift of the state in 2010 — the GOP holds both chambers of the state Legislature and the governor's mansion for the first time in nearly five decades — is a signal that Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud is in danger.
Michaud won with 55 percent of the vote last cycle and is well-liked, but the fierce independence of voters in Maine, coupled with a redistricting process that could nudge the faintly Democratic district into a genuine tossup, has Republicans closely watching Michaud's seat.
A top potential Republican contender is state Senate President Kevin Raye. If he jumps in the race, voters may experience a dose of déjà vu at their polling precincts: In 2002, Raye faced off against Michaud, who was the Senate President at the time. Raye lost the open-seat battle by just 9,019 votes, earning 48 percent.
Democrats acknowledge the district — where in a three-way gubernatorial race in 2010, tea-party-affiliated Republican Paul LePage won every county but one — is not safe for them, but they put their faith in Michaud.
"It's never going to be a slam dunk for us in the 2nd C.D., but we have the right candidate," said a top-ranking Democrat in the state.
"While rural Maine is traditionally more of a battleground, no one is a more perfect fit for the district than Congressman Michaud," state Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said in a statement.
It's true that Michaud, a pro-gun-rights Blue Dog Democrat and former mill worker, fits his district.
But Republicans see shifting alignments in the district at the statewide political level that they hope are a harbinger of what's to come in federal races. Many of the GOP Members who helped give Republicans the majority in the Legislature are from the 2nd district.
Republicans see their success not just as a result of the national wave, but as a successful statewide reframe of the party's platform.
State GOP Chairman Charles Webster said that when he took over in 2009, he put up a sign at the state party headquarters that read, "Working people vote Republican."
He said Democrats had prevailed in previous cycles by convincing middle-class and working-class voters that "Walmart workers, truck drivers, people that work with their hands, that they were the party that represented them."
But for the 2010 cycle, "We were able to recruit candidates that prove that we were on their side," Webster said.
Webster mentioned Raye and businessman Jason Levesque, who lost to Michaud in 2010, as potential candidates. He also hinted there might be some candidates with "significant money" on the horizon, depending on how the redistricting process plays out.
A bipartisan line-drawing committee is slated to submit its map by the end of August. The Legislature is expected to come into special session in September to vote on the plan, which requires a two-thirds majority for passage. That means Republicans will need some Democratic votes. If the Legislature becomes deadlocked and doesn't pass a plan by Sept. 30, Congressional redistricting will be taken over by the courts.
Raye, who served as Sen. Olympia Snowe's chief of staff for several years until 2001, said he is interested regardless of how the district turns out.
"I'm considering it," Raye told Roll Call in an interview. "Obviously, I'm always intrigued by an opportunity to serve."
Raye, who owns a gourmet mustard mill with his wife, said his strategy if he runs would be to contrast his record with Michaud's. He telegraphed some potential campaign themes.
For example, he noted he had presided over the passage of "the largest tax cut in the history of Maine" as well as reforms of welfare, pensions and health insurance.
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Tory Mazzola said Michaud's "partisan record is a big reason why we are watching this seat and why we expect him to face a serious challenge in 2012. Kevin Raye, with a record of service and creating jobs, would be a formidable opponent."
In 2010, Michaud voted with the Democratic Party 91 percent of the time, according to the CQ Vote Study in Politics in America.
Democrats with knowledge of long-term state politics balked at the idea the political tilt of the state has changed.
"The 2010 elections were, in many ways, an aberration," former Rep. Tom Allen (Maine) said. "Maine politics didn't change that much during the last election cycle."
Allen said Maine remains a state that is essentially independent, but in national elections leans Democratic. "A relatively moderate Republican can have some political success," he said.
Michaud campaign spokesman Greg Olson said the Congressman is focused on his job and will turn his attention to campaigning next fall.
Former Maine Gov. Angus King (I) said Michaud should not be underestimated, but he predicted that if Raye runs, "it will be a close race that will be determined largely by the general mood of the electorate."
He called Raye a "very credible candidate."
"He's done a nice job in the Legislature, and I think people have a lot of respect for him, so it won't be a walkover for Mike by any means," he said.