U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud says he won’t start actively campaigning until next month in his race for re-election against Republican challenger Jason Levesque. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at his September schedule.
Michaud has headed home from Washington every weekend this month to make whirlwind rounds of appearances in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District: veterans events in Windsor and Orono; tours of industrial and medical facilities in Bangor, Houlton and Millinocket; a firefighters convention in Presque Isle; a forum on benefits for female veterans in South Paris; a Central Maine Labor Council event in Waterville; a 100th birthday party for World War II veteran Carl Cuthbert in Dexter ….
Michaud says he’s just doing what he always does — working hard and meeting with the people he serves. The 55-year-old incumbent Democrat is seeking a fifth two-year term and says he’s no more concerned about his re-election prospects this time around than in previous campaigns. But there are indications he may be in for the toughest political fight he has faced since succeeding fellow Democrat John Baldacci as 2nd District congressman eight years ago.
“Am I going to please every voter? No, I’m not,” Michaud says. “But I take the time to listen to what my constituents say. And I’m trying to move us forward and make Maine and the country a better place.”
Levesque, 36, has his own ideas about making the state and country better, and the Auburn Republican is hoping to capitalize on a nationwide surge of anti-incumbent sentiment to help fuel his effort to unseat Michaud on Nov. 2. Republicans in Maine and elsewhere are hoping that voters’ anger about the economy and discontent over policies backed by President Obama and Democrats in Congress will enable the GOP to gain control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Polls measuring voter sentiment in the 2nd Congressional District race have offered mixed signals.
A poll commissioned by MaineToday Media, released Sept. 19, showed Michaud with a 20-point advantage over Levesque, 48-28, but also showed that a substantial 24 percent of respondents were undecided.
Among the undecided voters, 63 percent said they were not leaning toward a particular candidate and 28 percent said they “didn’t know.” The remaining 9 percent consisted of five respondents — three leaning toward Michaud and two toward Levesque.
A survey released Sept. 9 by Public Policy Polling showed Michaud with a much narrower, seven-point lead among likely voters, 45-38, and suggested that Michaud was “vastly under-performing” compared with previous elections.
Christian Potholm, a government professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, thinks a combination of factors will ultimately favor Michaud.
“Michaud works hard, has solid blue-collar support and has a great deal of support among those who hunt and fish,” he said, “so any challenger has a hard time getting any traction.”
For Levesque, the election is essentially a referendum on what he views as Michaud’s support of failed economic policies.
“He has done absolutely the opposite of what’s needed to be done to grow employment here in Maine,” Levesque said in a recent interview. “I see the race very locally, though it happens to be that the issues are also those concerning the rest of the nation. It’s imperative that we stop this cycle of continual economic decay.”
Michaud stands by his legislative votes during the past two years.
“These are very difficult times and there are no easy solutions,” he said. “What’s disappointing to me is some members of Congress now, and candidates who are running, are more concerned about parties and not about doing the right thing.”
Michaud, who has never been married, grew up in a working-class, Catholic family in Medway, one of six children, attended Schenck High School in East Millinocket and graduated in 1973. He then worked at the Great Northern Paper Co. mill in East Millinocket, as did his father and grandfather.
Though politics hadn’t been on his radar, Michaud decided to run for the state Legislature in 1980 because of a pollution problem in the Penobscot River near his home. He would serve seven consecutive terms in the House before his election in 1994 to the Maine Senate. He was elected Senate president in 2000.
Two years later, Michaud jumped into the race to succeed Baldacci, who left Congress to run for governor and now is serving the final months of his second term. Michaud beat out five rivals in the 2002 Democratic primary and went on to defeat Republican Kevin Raye by 4 percentage points in the November election.
Since then, Michaud has been re-elected easily by margins of 18, 41 and 33 percentage points.
Michaud has campaigned as a blue-collar candidate with strong support from unions, including the United Steelworkers union, of which he is still a member. He was the first recognized Franco-American from Maine to be elected to federal office.
In the House, Michaud serves on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and the Committee on Small Business.
Michaud has been known for his centrist politics as a member of the Blue Dog Coalition and for conservative positions on some issues, such as his opposition to abortion.
In Congress, Michaud noted in a recent interview, he’s been focused on addressing unfair trade practices that have contributed to the loss of more than 40 percent of Maine’s manufacturing base since adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. He has lately set his sights on passing legislation to discourage what he says is Chinese currency manipulation.
And he’s especially interested in veterans benefits issues because veterans account for about 16 percent of Maine’s population — the highest, per capita, of any state in the country.
Levesque grew up in Poland Spring with a brother and his mother, Patricia, after his parents divorced when he was young. They were poor and lived in a trailer, he said.
After graduating from Edward Little High School in Auburn in 1992, Levesque became the first member of his family to attend college, starting at West Virginia Wesleyan University as a history major. After three semesters, though, “I ran out of money,” he said, and had to drop out.
It was during that “crossroads of my life” when Levesque decided, without telling his family beforehand, to enlist in the Army because “I wanted to strike out on my own and do better.”
He went on to serve eight years in the Army — three years on active duty and five years in the Reserve — receiving an Expert Infantry designation and earning the rank of infantry team leader. While in the Reserve, he served as a drill sergeant at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and in Saco.
He returned to college at the University of Southern Maine, majoring in marketing and political science, while working as a swimming instructor for the Portland School System and Lewiston YWCA.
In 2003, Levesque used his marketing background to form his own business, Argo Marketing Group, which employs 35 people. Upon launching his campaign for Congress, Levesque said, he handed over control of the company to a new president and now acts as a consultant.
Argo, which Levesque describes as a “marketing logistics firm,” manages various aspects of clients’ consumer-marketing campaigns, including contract negotiations, vendor management and credit card processing.
“I like to call it what Congress should be doing,” Levesque said. “We are hired by clients — who are voters. They trust us with tax dollars in order to accomplish a mission or strategic goal, and our main responsibility is to manage their money effectively, spend as little as possible and get the best possible return on investment.”
Levesque, who is Greek Orthodox, lives in Auburn with his wife, Tracey, and three children: Alexandra, 12; Ethan, 4; and Sarah, 2.
In recent weeks, Levesque has held town hall-style meetings in Poland, Bangor and Farmington. Levesque said the open meetings have resulted in “wonderful ideas from the audience,” such as decentralizing government agencies outside of Washington.
Levesque said his efforts during the past 14 months show that “I am one of the hardest-working candidates in this state in years and my hard work on the campaign trail will only increase after I’m elected.”
GOVERNMENT’S ROLE AN ISSUE
The race between Michaud and Levesque highlights a common area of disagreement among candidates across the country: What is the proper role of the federal government?
That question took on heightened importance after congressional approval of the president’s economic stimulus plan and the Obama-backed overhaul of the nation’s health care system.
Levesque doesn’t mince words when criticizing Michaud’s support for those and other legislative measures; he says they are “job-killing” and increase the government’s debt to catastrophic levels, even as unemployment continues to rise.
“The solutions are to limit the size of government, limit frivolous spending that’s driving up debt and forcing us to look at new taxation models,” Levesque said. “It’s putting an undue burden on working families and small businesses, saddling people with amazing amounts of regulation.”
Michaud said he does not regret voting for the stimulus program or the health care bill, but said the measures are not all he had hoped for. He is disappointed, for example, that only 7 percent of the stimulus funding went to highway and infrastructure work; he wanted half of the spending devoted to such projects. Michaud cited estimates from transportation experts that every $1 billion spent on transportation construction creates about 35,000 jobs.
Michaud said that although Maine has benefited tremendously from the stimulus bill — it has, for instance, funneled millions of dollars into the expansion of broadband Internet in rural areas — he believes “it should have been more focused on what would really create jobs.”
Michaud also conceded that the new health care law “is definitely not perfect,” but said that, overall, it “does move us closer to fixing some issues.” The bill will help reduce waste and fraud, change how Medicaid is billed and contain medical costs, he said. Michaud said he would have preferred that the legislation include a provision enabling the federal government to negotiate lower costs for prescription drugs.
Levesque, by contrast, denounced the health care overhaul as a “government takeover” and said he would like to see Congress “repeal and replace” the bill. He favors measures such as small business insurance pooling, tax incentives for small businesses that provide health insurance, allowing people to cross state lines to purchase health insurance, and reforming medical malpractice laws.
Levesque said Congress should also take action to reduce the cost of utilities and reform the corporate tax structure to encourage business growth.
“Our business climate is beyond poor,” Levesque said. “We have to make it attractive for America to be the No. 1 exporter of this world, for us to be an economic powerhouse.”
Michaud said he is “extremely concerned” about the rising federal debt, which is why he supported Congress’ recent passage of “pay-go” a requirement that new spending must be offset by revenue.
“That will definitely get us back on track,” he said.
So far, Michaud has boasted an early advantage in campaign contributions. According to the most recent three-month Federal Election Commission reporting period, from April 1 to June 30, Levesque trailed Michaud by about $600,000 in available campaign cash.
Overall, Levesque’s campaign has raised $238,000, compared with Michaud’s $766,000.
Both campaigns have received money from political action committees.
Some committees contributing to Levesque include the Electronic Retailing Association, the Free and Strong America PAC headed by former Republican presidential candidate and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Republican leadership’s Dirigo PAC.
Committees contributing to Michaud include the AT&T Corp. PAC, International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, Machinists Non-Partisan Political League and the National Community Pharmacists Association PAC.
Levesque said he is looking forward to “the next phase” of the campaign as he and Michaud begin debating and making closing arguments.
Although Levesque faces a severe deficit in name recognition versus the well-known incumbent, the challenger believes that his message of fiscal conservatism will resonate with voters.
“Mike Michaud has been in government for 30 years, in Augusta and Washington,” Levesque said. “And his failed policies have left us in a very precarious situation.”
Michaud disagrees, but acknowledges that this is a difficult time to be an incumbent.
“There’s definitely a lot of anxiety out there in Maine and around the country,” he said.
Michaud hopes that voters will find value in his ability to work with both parties to find compromise solutions in an increasingly partisan Congress. It comes down to “getting things done,” he said.