Politics & Other Mistakes: Great northern stomp
Democratic U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine’s 2nd District regularly shows up on lists of the least effective, least powerful, least respected and least intelligent members of Congress. So, how does Michaud keep getting re-elected by hefty margins?
It’s not as if the district – composed of the western, central and northern parts of the state – is overwhelmingly Democratic.
Republicans won this seat in every election between 1972 and 1992, usually by lopsided tallies. Even though the Dems have taken all the races since then, the GOP has won far more legislative contests in the area, and today controls nearly all its state Senate districts.
It’s true that the incumbent congressman has deep ties to the declining ranks of organized labor at the few remaining paper mills and the still-powerful bloc of Franco-American voters in the St. John Valley and Lewiston-Auburn area. But both groups have always been inherently conservative on social issues, thereby making them susceptible to appeals from Republicans.
Speaking of social issues, Michaud has a record that could charitably be characterized as squishy. He was ardently pro-life during the 10 terms he served in the Maine Legislature. But after his election to Congress a decade ago, he became considerably less predictable, to the point where the religious right now labels him as a supporter of legalized abortion, while liberals regard him as, at best, an unreliable ally in backing a woman’s right to choose. He’s also switched sides on gay rights issues, voting in favor in recent years.
For most of his constituents, though, the only crucial social issue is opposing any form of gun control, and there he’s solidly in line with his homies and the NRA.
Then, there’s the Michaud public-speaking style, which can best be described as taxidermed. While he can work a room, making small talk with the best of them, when the congressman gets near the podium or in front of a TV camera, he does a passable imitation of the undead. Only less animated and with worse makeup.
His public pronouncements contain lots of clichés (“It’s just a matter of setting priorities”), a few talking points prepared by his staff (“I believe in free trade. But it has to be fair trade”), no fresh ideas (“This is a call for us to work together”) and absolutely no original thinking (“We must ensure our businesses are not overtaxed; we must fund education to create a world-class work force; and we must create new jobs to keep our young people in Maine”).
One point in Michaud’s favor: Unlike most members of Congress, unless he’s pushed, he rarely says anything.
In spite of his handicaps, Michaud won his seat in 2002 by squeaking out a four-percentage-point victory over the GOP’s Kevin Raye, with much of that margin coming from mill towns that have since lost most of their jobs and their populations.
In 2004, he crushed Republican challenger Brian Hamel, a competent technocrat with no discernable skills in retail politics. Michaud grabbed 58 percent of the vote and won every town except the ones where Hamel and his relatives lived.
In 2006, the GOP tried a new strategy called Let’s Not Bother. The nominee was conservative kook Scott D’Amboise, who failed to attract even 30 percent of the vote. Two years later, the entertainingly unelectable John Frary did about as well. In 2010, Michaud sleepwalked through the campaign, but still beat Jason Levesque by 10 points, even in a year that saw Republicans win nearly everything else in the state.
Which brings us to 2012 and a rematch against Raye, who has spent much of the interim establishing himself as a voice for common sense in the state Senate, where he’s currently the chief presiding officer. Since 2002, Raye has worked hard at converting his image from that of a Washington insider (he had been U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s chief of staff) to a Washington County insider (he and his wife run a mustard company in Eastport).
In ’02, Raye seemed stiff and uncomfortable on the campaign trail – and occasionally as incoherent as Michaud (he once said he’d be like a “dog on a pant leg” in trying to attract federal development money to northern Maine – I assume he meant biting, not humping). Today, he’s repressed his natural inclination to sound like an automaton (“We-must-be-vigilant-to-make-certain-Maine’s-needs-receive-the-attention-they-deserve”). And he’s raising sufficient money to be competitive.
Raye still has to overcome the LePage factor, the concern of some independents that Republican Gov. Paul LePage is a bumbling knot-head, and those who support the governor’s agenda, such as Raye, deserve to suffer for LePage’s bull-headedness. Given the likelihood this will be a close race, it could swing on how effectively Raye can balance himself between those who love the guv and those who hate him so much they’re willing to sacrifice Maine’s best interests for two more years of Michaud’s mediocrity.
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