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Former NASCAR driver Austin Theriault now racing for GOP nod in Maine's 2nd District

Austin Theriault greets fans during driver introductions for the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup series auto race at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., Sept. 21, 2019. The NASCAR driver-turned-politician wants the opportunity to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in Maine. Theriault, who made his announcement on a radio show, said he’ll “come in with fire” to confront issues like inflation, illegal border crossings and dying small towns. The 29-year-old freshman state lawmaker from Fort Kent formally filed his paperwork Monday, Sept. 25, 2023.
Steve Helber
/
AP file
Austin Theriault of Fort Kent, Maine, greets fans during driver introductions for the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup series auto race at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., Sept. 21, 2019. The NASCAR driver-turned-state lawmaker is running for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in November.

Austin Theriault was just 25 years old when a dream came true on a sweltering July day in 2019.

Theriault had started racing at Spud Speedway in the heart of Aroostook County potato country about 12 years earlier, long before he could even drive himself to the racetrack. But on that July day five years ago, Theriault was behind the wheel of a professional stock car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, waiting for his first start as a NASCAR driver.

“I sat in the grandstands as a kid," Theriault said recently. "And to be down there on the pit road with my family and the opportunity. Even though it was sort of a 35th place car, but still, at the end of the day you are in a pretty high-level sport. And that was just the beginning. We were planning years beyond that."

Theriault's hopes for that NASCAR season ended weeks later when he was injured in a chain reaction crash at Florida's famed Talladega Speedway. Now, nearly five years later, Theriault is racing for a very different sort of prize: a seat in Congress.

The 30-year-old Fort Kent native is one of two Republican state lawmakers — alongside Rep. Mike Soboleski of Phillips — who are hoping to win the Republican nomination next week to challenge Democratic Congressman Jared Golden in Maine's 2nd Congressional District.

Theriault has amassed more than $1 million in donations to his campaign — thanks, in no small part, to backing from leaders of the National Republican Congressional Committee and U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson. He also picked up the endorsement of former President Trump. The 67-year-old Soboleski, on the other hand, said his decades of business experience and service in the Marines will help him win votes from independents and even Republican veterans who have supported Golden.

For Theriault, the door to enter politics opened at about the same time that he decided in 2021 to step out from the driver's seat after several injuries and instead focus on the business side of racing. Republicans approached him about trying to succeed Democratic Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake, an institution in Maine politics who was termed out of his House seat.

"I said, 'Well, I am going through a transition myself right now. It may be an interesting time to start considering what's next,'" Theriault said over a plateful of food at Helen's Restaurant, an obligatory pit stop in Machias for any campaign swing through Washington County. "And with John Martin terming out, I threw my hat in the race and didn't know what to expect. I always followed what was happening in Maine."

Theriault won the Maine House seat in November 2022 and, less than a year later after additional encouragement from some Republican leaders, announced plans to run for the 2nd Congressional District seat this year.

“There’s a lot of politics in racing," he said with a laugh. "There’s a lot politics in any sport and in business as well. You can’t escape it.”

Speaking later that day to a packed room at the Washington County Republican Committee in Pembroke, Theriault focused his comments primarily on the incumbent not his primary opponent, Soboleski.

"I'm hoping that people turn out and come out in June so that we can go up against Jared Golden so that we can hold him accountable for his failures, failure of leadership and failure to be an aggressive voice in the 2nd District because that's what the district truly needs," Theriault said.

Austin Theriault, a former NASCAR driver running for Maine's 2nd Congressional District, speaks to members of the Washington County Republican Committee in May 2024 ahead of the GOP primary.
Kevin Miller
/
Maine Public
Austin Theriault, a former NASCAR driver running for Maine's 2nd Congressional District, speaks to members of the Washington County Republican Committee in May 2024 ahead of the GOP primary.

But first, Theriault will first have to defeat Soboleski, a business owner and former actor, during the June 11 Republican primary.

Both Theriault and Soboleski are freshman lawmakers in the Maine House. And their campaigns focus heavily on the economy, border issues, the 2nd Amendment and their support for Trump.

In the Legislature, Theriault has served on the Transportation Committee but, like many freshman lawmakers, had a relatively low-profile first term. Soboleski serves on the Labor and Housing Committee as well as the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

The two have clashed in debates over drug policy and who is the stronger conservative. But one glaring difference is the more than 30-year age gap between the candidates.

For 73-year-old Arthur Langley of Harrington, Theriault’s youth is a plus.

“I like Mike Soboleski and I like Austin," Langley said at the Republican committee meeting. "There are too many people in the Republican Party who look like me – old and white, and mostly old.”

Earlier in the day, Langley and his wife, Linda, had shown up at Helen's Restaurant to meet Theriault wearing matching bright-red "Make America Great Again" sweatshirts. Now in a room full of Republicans, many wearing similar attire, Langley said he is ready to give younger people a chance to fix the nation's problems, most notably the enormous national debt that he said is being left to them by his and other generations.

“Everybody has ability," Langley said. "Experience is a wonderful thing. But you have a lot of experience by 30 if you’ve done anything in life. It’s your judgment, it’s your character.”

Theriault often touts his family's Aroostook County roots in logging and farming. He also highlights his own business experience running a racing team and, most recently, in driver-development. And, of course, his campaign has highlighted his NASCAR roots and racing victories, which included a national championship in the 2017 ARCA Racing Series.

He also touts his endorsement by Trump in speeches, campaign flyers and ads.

"I am proud to have President Trump's endorsement," he said in a television ad. "Together we will secure the border, stop Biden's electric vehicle mandate and bring back American manufacturing. I'll fight to make sure our best days are ahead."

It’s an open question how a Trump endorsement will play during the general election. Trump won the majority of votes in Maine's 2nd District in both 2016 and 2020. But Golden still outpolled Trump in 2020 as he cruised to his second term.

But the endorsement is likely to help Theriault during a Republican primary in a rural district where Trump remains popular with many GOP voters.

"I think Trump is the only person who has looked out for us in my lifetime and I'm 52 years old," said Rod Tirrell, a Calais resident who was having lunch with his wife, Amanda, and another couple when Theriault stopped in. The two ladies posed for pictures with the former NASCAR driver and, when asked their politics, one of them proudly proclaimed “God, guns and Trump.”

So for Tirrell, a Trump endorsement likely matters.

“Stick to the Constitution, that’s all I want," Tirrell said. "I hope that’s what Austin is for. I don’t know him that well. But if Trump has given his endorsement, I’m guessing that’s who he is.”

A little later outside Calais City Hall, Theriault said he has supported Trump since 2016 but acknowledged the former president's polarizing nature even among some Republicans. But he also pointed to polls showing more Americans trust Trump than Biden on the economy and border security.

“Those are the two issues that people talk a lot about right now: the economy, inflation and the border and the drug crisis or the fentanyl crisis. I think those are the messages that I am going to take on the campaign trail.”

But Theriault's primary challenger, Soboleski, is hitting those same themes ahead of June 11 as Republican voters gear up to decide which candidate should take on Golden this fall.

A profile of the second candidate in the Republican primary, Mike Soboleski, will air on Maine Public and be posted on the website on Wednesday, June 5.