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GOP candidates in Maine’s 2nd District bob, weave and refuse to acknowledge Biden’s win

Bruce Poliquin, Republican candidate for Maine's 2nd Congressional District, speaks to reporters during a campaign stop at Dysart's Restaurant and Truck Stop, Thursday, May 19, 2022, in Bangor, Maine. Liz Caruso, Republican candidate for Maine's 2nd Congressional District, speaks at the Republican state convention, Saturday, April 30, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Robert F. Bukaty
Bruce Poliquin, Republican candidate for Maine's 2nd Congressional District, speaks to reporters during a campaign stop at Dysart's Restaurant and Truck Stop, Thursday, May 19, 2022, in Bangor, Maine. Liz Caruso, Republican candidate for Maine's 2nd Congressional District, speaks at the Republican state convention, Saturday, April 30, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

President Joe Biden was duly elected in 2020 and his victory was not influenced by rampant voter fraud or misconduct by election officials. But the two Republicans vying to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden wouldn’t acknowledge those facts this week.

Former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and candidate Liz Caruso either sidestepped or raised doubts about the validity of the 2020 presidential election which was certified by Democratic and Republican election officials. Former President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice also found no evidence of widespread fraud and Trump lost more than 50 legal disputes challenging the results.

When asked this week during an interview with Maine Public whether Biden was rightfully elected, Caruso said she “can’t say for sure.” She went on to suggest that many other Americans share this view and that all avenues should be pursued to determine the truth.

It’s unclear what’s left to pursue. As mentioned above, Trump’s legal challenges to swing state results have failed and federal investigators at DOJ ruled out years ago that widespread fraud or malfeasance had any role in the election outcome. Audits — including a highly partisan and suspicious exercise executed by Trump loyalists in Arizona — have confirmed it, too.

Caruso was pressed further on the issue during an interview on Maine Public’s call-in show Maine Calling and she acknowledged that she doesn’t have evidence to assert that Biden was not rightfully elected, only that voters still have questions.

The former president continues to perpetuate the idea that he won, an assertion that has persuaded many Republican voters to believe him and also sparked the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Trump has even tried to punish Republicans who thwarted his attempts to block certification of the election, an effort that failed spectacularly in Georgia recently when Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — both of whom resisted the former president’s election-blocking overtures in 2020 — cruised in their primary battles over Trump-backed challengers.

Kemp and Raffensperger faced primaries because they refused to go along with what some refer to as the Big Lie about the 2020 election.

But such resistance is rare in the Republican party, particularly in the GOP primary for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.

Caruso said this week that she doesn’t believe Trump had any responsibility for sowing doubt about the results.

Poliquin has repeatedly dodged the question ever since qualifying for the ballot earlier this year. He continued that tack during an interview this week with News Center Maine’s Rob Caldwell.

Caldwell repeatedly pressed Poliquin, who would only say that Trump won Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, and that he, Poliquin, spoke out against the Jan. 6 riots (It’s true Poliquin condemned the riots. He also attempted to draw an equivalency between the storming of the Capitol and the protests that proliferated following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota).

“All I can tell you is he (Trump) was the certified winner in our 2nd District,” Poliquin said. “That’s great, but I’m focusing on my campaign. I don’t look back, I look forward.”

In summary, Poliquin is confident Trump was the legitimate winner of the 2nd Congressional District, but wouldn’t say Biden legitimately won the presidency.

Caruso and Poliquin’s rhetoric on this issue is not an outlier. Republican candidates across the country are bobbing and weaving about Biden’s win because they either believe Trump’s falsehoods, or they fear a backlash by the GOP primary voters who believe the former president’s false claims about a stolen election.

Here come the independents

For a while there, it was looking as if Maine voters might have their first head-to-head contest for governor in decades.

But developments during the past week should please voters who prefer more than a binary choice at the ballot box -- and Maine’s adoption of ranked-choice voting suggests many do.

The question now is whether independents will affect the races for governor and Congress – or if Maine voters will stick to the major-party contenders during an election when control of the Blaine House, State House and Congress are in play.

Absent a successful challenge of his qualifying signatures, Sam Hunkler of Washington County will join incumbent Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and Republican former Gov. Paul LePage on the ballot. And Tiffany Bond filed enough signatures to run again as an independent in the 2nd Congressional District.

Hunkler is a political newcomer and still largely a mystery when it comes to his campaign priorities. His basic website raises lots of rhetorical questions about creating opportunities for children, addressing the drug crisis and protecting the environment but offers no policy proposals.

“The more I make a stance about any issue, the less I am open to finding common ground,” he states on his website.

In an interview, Hunkler said his campaign priorities are still “evolving” and that his positions will change in response to conversations with people — as they should, he added, when those positions are on complex policy issues.

A semi-retired family physician from Beals, Hunkler says he was motivated to join the race by his frustration with party politics, partisan gridlock and big-money campaigning.

“I really believe that we are so divided, and I don’t see that either party can bring us back together,” Hunkler said during an interview. “So that’s one thing that I am about . . . wanting to find common ground.”

Likewise, Bond said she is joining the 2nd District race to provide an alternative to the party nominees: incumbent Democratic Rep. Jared Golden and either former Rep. Bruce Poliquin or Liz Caruso. Republicans will choose between Poliquin and Caruso during the June 14 primary.

Bond is a family law attorney who lives in Portland but whose family is building a house in the Rangeley area. She describes herself as a moderate whose life experiences – as a mom, former city official and attorney largely for clients in rural Mainers – will help her in DC.

Bond was also on the ballot with Golden and Poliquin in 2018. And Golden ultimately defeated Poliquin during a ranked-choice runoff because so many of Bond’s supporters listed him as their second choice.

A RCV runoff could happen again in the 2nd District race if none of the three candidates receive more than 50 percent on the first vote tally. (RCV won’t be used in the governor’s race because Maine’s Constitution says a “plurality” of voters decides general elections for state offices).

Bond laughed when asked if that was part of her calculus in 2022.

“What I can tell you is my plan is to win this year,” Bond said. “They (Golden and Poliquin) have both had a shot and I don’t think either one of them belongs anywhere near Washington, D.C.”

But can they win – or affect the races?

Both Bond and Hunkler will face major challenges in what have to be described as long-shot campaigns at this point.

Both plan to rely largely on volunteers, social media and free media to get their names out there. Meanwhile, Mills, LePage, Golden and Poliquin (should he win the GOP nomination) all have much higher name recognition because they hold or have held the offices they seek.

The national Democratic and Republican political machines are also poised to spend tens of millions of dollars on their candidates.

Hunkler, on the other hand, hopes to spend $5,000 or less on his grassroots campaign (minus travel expenses).

“I probably spent maybe $800 and I got on the ballot,” he said. “I didn’t pay anybody to get these signatures, I got 92 percent of them myself. But I worked hard.”

Bond is accepting campaign donations this year. But as did in her 2018 campaign, she said she would prefer would-be donors spend the money at a local business or on a charity or worthy cause – an effort she calls Maine Raising.

“If 10 people do Maine Raisings, do I win? No, I just helped 10 people. Cool,” Bond said. “If 10- 20- or 30,000 people do Maine Raising . . . I think I win. I mean, when is the last time somebody in politics helped you?”

But don’t be surprised, if the races are tight, to see partisan groups try to boost one of the independents to eat into support from one of the major-party candidates, particularly Mills or Golden. In 2012, Republican-aligned groups took out ads touting the Democratic candidate in hopes of hurting independent and race frontrunner Angus King before he won his Senate seat.

Soros group unloads on Cumberland County DA race

A group founded by Democratic mega donor George Soros is attempting to influence the Cumberland County district attorney race.

The contest between incumbent DA Jonathan Sahrbeck and challenger Jackie Sartoris will be decided in the June 14 Democratic primary. Sartoris, an attorney and former Brunswick town councilor, is running as a criminal justice reformer and has used campaign mailers to highlight the fact that she’s a “lifelong Democrat.”

That’s a reference to Sahrbeck, who won the prosecutor job in 2018 as an independent after the Republican and Democratic candidates dropped out of the race. He’s now running as a Democrat.

Sartoris has outraised Sahrbeck in campaign contributions and she’s also getting some help from a group called Maine Justice and Public Safety PAC, an offshoot of the D.C.-based Justice and Public Safety PAC, which backs progressive district attorney candidates across the country. It does that with significant financial support from Soros, a billionaire and top donor to Democratic candidates and causes. Earlier this year Soros donated $125 million to a political action committee that gets involved in prosecutor elections by running ads — often negative — to bolster its chosen candidates.

The Maine iteration of this effort has secured at least $300,000 for the purpose of backing Sartoris. As of Thursday, it’s spent more than $176,000 on the Cumberland DA race. That’s more than any other Maine prosecutor contest in state history. It’s a sum seen mostly in competitive state senate races.

This week Sahrbeck denounced the interference by the outside group.

“This type of outside spending is just outrageous,” he said in a statement. “Folks in Cumberland County should be disgusted by this attempt to buy this race. The role of District Attorney is about the prompt, effective and compassionate prosecution of all cases, but whoever is funding this spending spree must have a different agenda in mind. So I ask, exactly what or who are they trying to buy? Jackie Sartoris needs to denounce these attack ads immediately.”

Sartoris is not denouncing the attacks against her opponent. Far from it.

In a tweetresponding to Sahrbeck’s statement, she said, “Thrilled by our grassroots fact-based positive campaign for change! Thrilled at the national attention reform-minded DA candidates are getting! Negative ads we don't control? Nah. But my opponent controls his campaign. It's a tad misleading.”

Envelopes, please

The Mills administration appears to have solved an envelope shortage that could have stalled the rollout of her inflation relief payments to qualifying Maine tax filers.

But not before raising some questions about whether the worldwide paper and envelope shortage could hinder another key function of state government: running this year’s elections.

The latter task doesn’t fall to Gov. Janet Mills, or her administration, but rather, the Secretary of State. Maine uses paper ballots. Voters here are also prolific users of absentee ballots, which requires not only paper, but paper envelopes.

Earlier this year, election officials in other states worried that the paper shortage resulting from pandemic-induced supply chain issues could hinder the 2022 elections, especially primary contests that have been taking place all spring and will continue through the summer.

Some raised the issue with members of Congress and worried that they wouldn’t have the supplies they needed.

Emily Cook, a spokesperson for the Maine Secretary of State, said this week that elections here should have the paper they need, including for the June 14 primary.

“Thankfully, we here in Maine planned ahead, made our order for envelopes early and made use of some older envelope stock we had on hand, and are all set for the June 14 primaries,” Cook said. “We placed our order for the November election already, and expect to have that on hand this summer.”

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week political correspondents Steve Mistler and Kevin Miller and produced by digital reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.