March 13, 2010

Far-flung 2nd District challenges Allen

By TOM BELL Staff Writer


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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer.. Wednesday, October7, 2008...Senate candidate Tom Allen and his wife, Diana, meet with members of the audience before a debate with opponent Susan Collins sponsored by the Brewer Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday afternoon, October 7, 2008.

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer.. Wednesday, October7, 2008...Senate candidate Susan Collins meets with members of the audience prior to a debate with opponent Tom Allen sponsored by the Brewer Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, October 7, 2008.

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Staff Writer

BREWER — Riding in his blue-and-red campaign van, U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, passed at least a hundred ''Susan Collins Our Senator'' signs planted on both sides of the driveway of Jeff's Catering Banquet & Convention Center.

Allen was here last week to debate Collins, the incumbent Republican senator, on her home turf in the heart of Maine's 2nd Congressional District.

Those ubiquitous rows of red-and-white Collins signs seemed to send a statement: Allen is the outsider here.

To unseat Collins, voters and political observers say, Allen must overcome significant geographic and cultural obstacles that face politicians from southern Maine in statewide races.

''There is an extra hurdle they have to get over,'' said Mark Brewer, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maine.

In northern and eastern Maine, Allen is not as well-known as Collins. Both candidates have been in Washington for 12 years. But Allen, a Portland native, has represented southern Maine's 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, while Collins, who lives in Bangor, has represented the entire state in the U.S. Senate.

While Allen doesn't have to win the district, he needs to do well enough to offset Collins' support in the south.

To make up ground, Allen is devoting extensive time to campaigning in the 2nd District. That's no easy task.

At 27,326 square miles, the 2nd District is one of the most rural districts in the nation and the largest district east of the Mississippi. It is as large as Vermont, New Hampshire and New Jersey combined.

Allen is spending the entire weekend in the 2nd District. He was in Gardiner on Saturday. Tonight, he's hosting a community supper in Old Town. Monday, he will be visiting senior homes in Lewiston.

The importance of each candidate's regional identity in the race was clear in Brewer at last week's debate, sponsored by the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.

Collins opened immediately with her 2nd District credentials, noting she was born in Caribou, where her family runs a fifth-generation lumber business.

As a child, she visited Bangor on shopping trips, rode the escalator at Freese's Department Store and watched high school basketball games at the Bangor Auditorium. Bangor has been her home for 14 years.

''My roots run deep in this region,'' she told the audience.

Allen noted he is a seventh-generation Mainer and has been fishing and hiking in the region his entire life. He said he has made frequent visits to the 2nd District as a congressman to meet with business owners and hospital administrators.

''I am not a stranger here,'' he told the crowd.

Maine's 1st District covers the southern coastal areas of York, Cumberland, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties and most of Kennebec County. The 2nd District encompasses everything else.

The 2nd District is generally more socially and fiscally conservative than the 1st District, and issues like gun rights and abortion are more important to voters in the north, Brewer said.

While both districts supported Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, the margin was wider in the 1st District, where Kerry won 55 percent to Bush's 43 percent. In the 2nd District, Kerry won 52 percent to Bush's 46 percent.

Bush carried only two Maine counties in that election, and both were in the 2nd District: Piscataquis and Washington counties.

The 2nd District has a tradition of electing Republican women to office, however. Margaret Chase Smith represented the district in the U.S. House, as did Olympia Snowe.

Brewer said the district's popular congressman, Mike Michaud, a conservative Democrat who opposes abortion rights and for years operated a forklift at the Millinocket paper mill, is a better fit for the district than Allen, a liberal Democrat who studied at Oxford University in England as a Rhodes Scholar.

''Michaud comes off as an average 2nd District Mainer. It's second nature to him,'' Brewer said. ''Allen, he's not a product of that environment, and he does come off as kind of wonkish.''

Brewer said there are many people in the district who plan to vote for both Collins and Michaud on Nov. 4.

Tom Valley, a Holden Democrat who plans to vote for Collins, said that one of Allen's biggest problems is his hometown. ''Tom is from the big city in Portland,'' he said. ''And he tells people what they want to hear.''

Collins' supporters in Bangor say they like having a senator who is accessible and highly visible. Collins attends community events when she's in town.

She's spotted frequently shopping at the Hannaford in downtown Bangor and is an active member of St. Mary's Parish.

''She's one of us,'' said Miles Theeman, 58, of Bangor, an administrator of a health care company.

Before the beginning of the debate, Collins approached Theeman and hugged him.

''She's never too busy to say, 'Hello,''' Theeman said afterward. ''And when she talks to you, she's listening to you, as opposed to giving you lip service.''

Mary Dysart Hartt, one of the owners of Dysart's restaurant and truck stop in Hermon, said she traveled to Washington, D.C., last month to attend a National Restaurant Association convention and meet the state's congressional delegation.

Before the trip, while shopping for an outfit for the occasion at Talbots at the Bangor Mall, Dysart Hartt was told by the sales clerk that Collins would love the outfit because Collins shops at the store all the time and has similar taste in clothing.

In Washington, Dysart Hartt said, Allen sent an aide to meet with Maine restaurant owners. Collins met with them for nearly an hour.

''She tells the truth and works to support what this area stands for,'' Dysart Hartt said.

Collins said her connection with people is crucial to her job.

''I wouldn't like it if they didn't find me accessible,'' she said.

Allen said he believes that his campaign is gaining momentum in the 2nd District because people are more likely to agree with him than Collins on the major national issues, such as his early opposition to the war in Iraq, energy policy and a tax policy that he believes favors the middle class over the wealthy.

''I may come from the south, but my agenda fits this district -- which is a middle-class, small-business agenda.'' he said.

He said he is doing particularly well in the district's large communities, and he expects to carry Bangor on Election Day.

The Maine Democratic Party's strong grass-roots organization is one of Allen's advantages. The party is running an aggressive field campaign, with an office in each of Maine's 16 counties, 40 paid field staffers and 4,700 volunteers.

That organization was evident at Tuesday's debate. While Collins had the overwhelming advantage in the number of campaign signs, the Democrats produced more people. Two dozen volunteers greeted Allen with a huge cheer when he stepped out of his van at the center.

In contrast, while Collins' supporters -- mostly businesspeople -- filled the debate audience, there appeared to be no organized effort to get volunteers to the event.

Even at this late stage, though, Allen is still not that well-known in the district, said Steve Willey, owner of Java Joe's Cafe in downtown Bangor.

Willey, a Democrat, said he saw Allen at the Bangor Folk Festival in August and thought he was a television reporter.

Yet, while Collins is well-liked and accessible, he believes she has been too supportive of the Bush administration. That's why he's going to vote for Allen. ''I don't think I can trust her,'' he said.

Norma Jeanne DuGay, who owns a Bangor cleaning service, agreed. ''She's been with Bush too much,'' she said. ''He's made a mess of the world.''

Recent polls by the independent Rasmussen Reports and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee indicate that Collins is maintaining a lead. But the gap is down to 8 to 10 percentage points, the polls found, from a high of 15 points in August.

Ken Palmer, who has taught political science at the University of Maine since 1969, said he expects the Senate race will tighten over the remaining three weeks of the race.

But he said Mainers are reluctant to oust incumbent senators. That last time that happened, he said, was 30 years ago when Republican William Cohen, a 2nd District congressman, defeated Sen. William Hathaway, a Democrat.

Northern Maine voters are often resentful of the south, which is perceived as wealthier and more influential, and many believe that urban politicians don't understand rural cultural values, said Christian Potholm, a Bowdoin College professor of government.

The biggest obstacle for southern Maine politicians, though, is a practical one, he said. The 2nd District is so vast that it takes years to visit all the small towns.

''It's a geography problem,'' he said.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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Additional Photos

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer.. Wednesday, October7, 2008...Campaign signs line the driveway to Jeff's Catering Banquet and Convention Center in Brewer where the Chamber of Commerce sponsored a debate between District 2 Senate candidates Tom Allen and Susan Collins. Incumbent Susan Collins is an Aroostook County native who resides in Bangor and is very popular in Senate district 2.

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer.. Wednesday, October7, 2008...Bangor resident Norma Jeanne DuGay is looking for a change in the political arena and is planning to vote for Tom Allen in the District 2 Senatorial race.

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer.. Wednesday, October7, 2008...Mary Dysart Hartt, an owner of Dysart's Truck Stop in Bangor, is a strong supporter of Senator Susan Collins because of her support of small business.

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