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Tuesday November 01, 2011 | 10:40 AM

Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd, is closer to having a formal opponent next year, and a potential challenger to Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st, is making it clear that he would try to make an issue out of the wealth and political activity of Pingree’s husband, billionaire hedge fund manager Donald Sussman.

Maine state Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, is one step closer to making a run next year against Michaud, announcing today that he has formed a congressional race exploratory committee.

“Maine and the Nation face serious challenges and I believe we need people in Congress who will help make Washington work better,” Raye said in a statement.  “Over the next few weeks, I will be reaching out to Mainers, traveling the Second District, visiting with people and seeking their input and advice as I weigh the possibility of becoming a candidate for Congress in 2012.” 

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

“It’s a true exploratory committee. I have not made up my mind,” Raye said. “It is clear to me that it is something I have to give very thoughtful consideration. If I decide to run then I will be totally committed to it and work my hardest to be elected.”

Raye, owner with his wife Karen of Raye’s Mustard Mill in Eastport, has for months said that he is considering challenging Michaud. It was a Michaud versus Raye battle in 2002, one that Michaud won with 52 percent of the vote to take the 2nd congressional seat that he has held since then, including with a comfortable win in 2010.

There was a move earlier this year by Maine Republicans to make the 2nd district much more Republican in its makeup when district lines were redrawn following the 2010 Census. In the end, a compromise was struck that moved just Democratic leaning Waterville and Winslow from the 2nd district to the 1st district, a few communities the other way and had the result of a net gain of about 3,000 or so Republican voters in the newly drawn 2nd district.

Raye, a former aide to GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, is prevented by term limits from running again for the state Senate.

Greg Olson, Michaud’s campaign manager, said in a statement in response to Raye's announcement that the 2nd district following redistricting is still “more favorable” to Michaud than when he first won in 2002.

“Right now Congressman Michaud is focused on doing the job he was elected to do last year,” Olson said.  “Come next fall we will run a vigorous campaign on his record of success in helping our veterans, investing in our infrastructure and promoting a trade policy that favors American jobs and manufacturers.”

Meanwhile, Maine state Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, says he will decide soon after Thanksgiving whether to make a run for Congress against Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st district.

But while Courtney is still weighing a run, it’s clear that a Courtney challenge to Pingree would involve bringing up the topic of Pingree’s husband, billionaire hedge fund manager Donald Sussman.

In a phone interview Monday about his potential congressional campaign, Courtney, who owns a dry cleaning business and commercial rental properties, said that Pingree has “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 big bucks into Democratic Party and allied causes in Maine and appears prepared to write a large check on behalf of Pingree’s reelection campaign if needed, Courtney said.

“How can someone truly represent Maine that doesn’t have to struggle to earn a living,” Courtney said.

But Courtney, who also is prevented by term limits from running for the state Senate again, said he knows he would be a “long shot” to beat Pingree, in part because of the amount of money potentially at Pingree’s disposal.

“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. So far this election cycle, Pingree has raised a relatively moderate sum, and had $114,644 on hand 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 re-election campaign.

When asked about Courtney’s comments, Pingree’s campaign manager, Kate Simmons, responded by saying, “The election is a year away. Congresswoman Pingree is focused on her work in Congress and working to strengthen the economy. She is fighting to bring jobs to Maine by helping small businesses…working to build the local food economy and working to bring economic development to communities all over Maine.”

Pingree and Michaud currently are not on the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington's list of competitive House races for 2012.

 

 

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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