Maine GOP Looks to Avoid Primary in 2nd

Posted March 10, 2004 at 6:44pm

With Maine’s March 15 filing deadline just days away, Brian Hamel, a 46-year-old economic development official from Aroostook County, appears the likely Republican challenger to first-term Rep. Mike Michaud (D) in the Pine Tree State’s fiercely independent 2nd district.

“As far as I know there’s not going to be a primary,” said Lois Bloomer, chairwoman of the Penobscot County Republicans.

Many Maine GOPers believe the narrow field should boost the party’s chances. In the past cycle, their nominee, Kevin Raye, who Michaud narrowly bested 52 percent to 48 percent, faced both a crowded primary field and a contentious recount before securing the nomination, said Dwayne Bickford, executive director of the Maine Republican Party.

Raye, Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R-Maine) former chief of staff, decided to forgo a rematch with Michaud and is instead running for a seat in the Maine Senate.

Two other Republicans had also considered the race, but one dropped out and the other is now mulling a run as an Independent.

Bob Stone, a former Lewiston banker, briefly threw his hat in the ring in mid-January then withdrew a week later and endorsed Hamel, citing a desire to avoid a costly GOP primary battle.

Bangor City Councilor David Nealley, a socially moderate fiscal conservative, had also expressed interest in the Republican nomination, but subsequently left the GOP. Third-party candidates other than the Green Party are not required to file until June 1.

“This is an example of a GOP recruiting failure,” crowed Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Kori Bernards.

But Maine Republicans are high on Hamel, who said his aggressive outreach to key district and state Republican stalwarts dissuaded potential GOP challengers.

“They came on board quite early, so I think those Republicans that thought about running went to the same circles and found the support already locked up by me,” he said.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti said that Michaud’s narrow margin of victory last cycle coupled with his votes against Republican Medicare and tax-cut plans left him vulnerable. But he declined to comment on whether the contest would be a top priority for national Republicans, saying only that the committee “would wait until the filing deadline closes.”

However, Hamel said when he earlier met with NRCC officials they made it clear to him that the seat is a GOP target.

In a campaign expected to hinge in large part on employment issues — a handful of paper mills have been shuttered in the past year, and Maine leads the nation in lost manufacturing jobs — both candidates are touting their economic credentials.

Though the swing 2nd district has been trending Democratic, Hamel and Maine Republican officials believe his role as president of the Loring Development Authority will be key to convincing voters in a district where roughly a third of the electorate is unenrolled to oust the sitting Congressman. At the authority, Hamel has overseen the transformation of the former Loring Air Force Base into the Loring Commerce Centre — which now employs 1,500 people.

“I don’t know how my opponent could launch criticism at a person who created 1,500 jobs in a region that’s lost 1,100,” Hamel said.

Hamel also points to his role in bringing the popular rock band Phish and tens of thousands of its fans to the former Air Force base on three occasions as an example of his ability to attract millions of dollars in revenue for the northern Maine economy.

A Massachusetts native, Hamel moved to the 2nd district 10 years ago when he was recruited by then-Gov. John McKernan (R) to recreate at Loring the results he had produced during the redevelopment of New Hampshire’s Pease Air Force Base. Hamel recently took unpaid leave from his post to pursue the House seat.

Hamel has held informal discussions with individuals associated with the Maine chapters of the National Federation of Independent Business and Chamber of Commerce, as well as with the Maine Bankers Association, and he is expected to attract support in the state’s business community.

But Democrats say Michaud and others share much of the credit for the employment provided by the Loring Commerce Centre.

“I think people in Maine know when Michaud was chairman of the Appropriations Committee in the state Senate, he helped bring needed money to this development company that created many of these jobs that Hamel claims to have created,” said the DCCC’s Bernards. She added that then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) also “secured a great deal of funding that helped create these jobs.”

During his brief Congressional tenure, Michaud, a 30-year paper mill worker and a former state Senate president, has championed populist issues, introducing legislation to repeal trade promotion authority and co-sponsoring a concurrent resolution to withdraw the United States from NAFTA and taking trips with seniors to Canada to purchase prescription drugs.

The 49-year-old Michaud, a member of the conservative House Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, is heavily favored by organized labor, whose support was “critical” to his 2002 win, according to his press secretary, Monica Castellanos.

Abortion could also become an issue in the 2nd district race. Michaud is personally opposed to abortion rights, but does not support a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade, Castellanos said.

Hamel says he supports abortion rights, as Raye did in 2002. But Hamel and Michaud both support the ban on the procedure known as partial-birth abortion, which President Bush recently signed into law.

Michaud has not attracted a primary challenger, and the Maine Green Independent Party, which is running a slate of candidates for the state Legislature, does not expect to field an opponent in November, said the party’s co-chairwoman, Heather “Betsy” Garrold.

“Most of us like Mike pretty well,” she said.

Despite being a beneficiary of the DCCC’s “Frontline Democrats” program — which raises funds for its 19 most endangered incumbents — Bernards asserted, “of the 19, [Michaud’s] one I’m not as worried about.”

While Maine Republicans and Democrats are expecting a tough battle, on the ground and on the airwaves of the sprawling 2nd district — the largest east of the Mississippi — Michaud holds a sizeable advantage in the money chase.

The Michaud campaign posted $306,271 through Dec. 31 and expects to finish the first quarter with about $400,000 on hand, said finance director Rick Galena. Michaud is hoping to raise about $2 million total for the campaign. He also plans to step up his Internet outreach and is considering launching a series of meetups through the Web-based service Meetup.com.

Hamel — whose campaign is still in its incipient stages — declined to say how much money he had on hand but expects to bank between $100,000 and $200,000 by March 31.

Jim Donnelly, a development authority board member who is informally advising Hamel as part of his “kitchen cabinet,” said Hamel would likely hold close to a dozen fundraising events before the end of the month.

Beyond his anticipated ability to fill campaign coffers, state Republicans say Hamel, an avid marathon runner who rides a Harley-Davidson, scores high in the charm department.

“He’d be the type that could work a room,” said the state GOP’s Bickford.

Hamel’s also been talking to Bush-Cheney ’04 officials and is counting on the strength of the campaign’s efforts in Maine — where electoral votes are awarded statewide and by district — to help energize Republican turnout in the 2nd.

“When the president comes to Maine, I will be on that podium with him,” he said.