WASHINGTON — A long-anticipated rematch pitting Maine Senate President Kevin Raye against Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud in the 2nd Congressional District is closer to reality with Raye’s announcement Tuesday that he has formed an exploratory committee.

Meanwhile, Maine Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, says he won’t decide until after Thanksgiving whether he will challenge Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, but made it clear that if he does, he would try to make an issue of the wealth and political activity of Pingree’s husband, billionaire hedge fund manager Donald Sussman.

An exploratory committee is an interim step before formally declaring a candidacy, one that allows fundraising to begin. In a phone interview, Raye, R-Perry, said he would only raise enough money for now to support his exploratory committee.

“It’s a true exploratory committee. I have not made up my mind,” Raye said.

Raye, who owns Raye’s Mustard Mill in Eastport with his wife, Karen, has for months weighed challenging Michaud.

In 2002, Michaud first won his seat by defeating Raye with 52 percent of the vote, and Michaud has been re-elected by comfortable margins since then.

Earlier this year, Maine Republicans attempted to make the 2nd Congressional District much more Republican through a proposed redistricting plan after the 2010 Census. Instead, a compromise moved just Democratic-leaning Waterville and Winslow from the 2nd District to the 1st District, a few communities the other way, resulting in a net gain of about 3,000 or so Republican voters in the 2nd District.

Raye, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, is in his fourth term in the Maine Senate and prevented by term limits from another state Senate run.

Greg Olson, Michaud’s campaign manager, said, “Right now, Congressman Michaud is focused on doing the job he was elected to do last year.”

Courtney, who is considering running for the Pingree seat, is also termed out from the state Senate.
In a phone interview this week, Courtney said that Pingree “worked to get the money out of politics” in the past when she was president of Common Cause, a public interest advocacy group in Washington.

But now Pingree’s husband is plowing money into Democratic Party and allied causes in Maine and appears prepared to write a large check on behalf of Pingree’s re-election campaign if needed, Courtney said.

Courtney, who owns a dry cleaning business and commercial rental properties, said he knows he would be a “long shot” to beat Pingree.

“You could never have the opportunity to raise money for the amount they can write a check for,” Courtney said.

Pingree, who first won election to Congress in 2008, comfortably won a second term in 2010. Pingree had $114,644 on hand in her campaign coffers as of Sept. 30.

But Pingree made it clear earlier this year in an interview that her June wedding to Sussman means she could pump a lot of personal money into her 2012 campaign.

Pingree’s campaign manager, Kate Simmons, said Tuesday, “The election is a year away. Congresswoman Pingree is focused on her work in Congress and working to strengthen the economy.”

Both Courtney and Raye tout their accomplishments in the state legislature and what they say is a more cooperative climate in Augusta between Democrats and Republicans at the Statehouse than exists in Washington.

At the State House, the Republicans chose not to push through a majority budget earlier this year, setting in place a process that required support from Democrats to pass the $6 billion two-year spending plan.

Both Michaud and Pingree start the 2012 race with the edge, and neither is currently listed by the nonpartisan Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report as being involved in a competitive 2012 House race. That will be re-evaluated if Raye and Courtney become formal candidates, said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

“Raye and Courtney would give Republicans credible challengers, but they both better hope that Mitt Romney is the Republican (presidential) nominee,” Gonzales said. “It would be difficult to overcome a more conservative presidential candidate down the ballot.”
 
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan M. Cover contributed to this story.
 
MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at
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