September 20, 2010

1st District: Scontras wages uphill battle against Pingree

But Maine history shows that a GOP challenger can upset a well-funded Democratic incumbent.

By Glenn Jordan
Staff Writer

David Emery knows what it's like to face an incumbent in Maine's 1st Congressional District.

click image to enlarge

First District Rep. Chellie Pingree says constituent service may be the most gratifying part of her job.

Staff file photo

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Republican Dean Scontras addresses a tea party rally in Westbrook on Sunday.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

From fundraising to name recognition, the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of the person already in office.

As a 26-year-old electrical engineer from Rockland in 1974, Emery went up against Democrat Peter Kyros, a four-term congressman from Portland.

This was the first election after the resignation of President Nixon following two years of a widening Watergate scandal, so it wasn't a great year to be Republican. Indeed, Democrats would gain five seats in the Senate and 49 in the House.

"Even though on the surface, you'd have said a Republican challenger would have no chance against a Democratic incumbent, Congress was extraordinarily unpopular," Emery said. "Incumbents were in danger for a variety of reasons," including high inflation and high unemployment.

Emery spent the summer walking through southern Maine, knocking on doors, shaking hands, conversing outside garages.

"I just worked my tail off that summer and fall," he said. "And as I recall, Peter didn't even have any TV ads. I don't think he was worried at all."

The results of a poll published two days before the election in the Maine Sunday Telegram revealed no hint of what lay ahead. Kyros held a 59 percent to 41 percent advantage, according to the telephone survey of 406 voters, and the three-way gubernatorial race surely belonged to a former aide of Sen. Edmund Muskie named George Mitchell, who led Republican James Erwin by 9 points and independent James Longley by 19.

Instead, on the first Tuesday of November, Maine voters elected both Emery (barely) and Longley (by 3 percentage points over Mitchell).

Wrote Jim Brunelle in the former Evening Express: "Kyros's loss was wholly unexpected and demonstrated the depth of the public's perverse mood at the current state of political affairs, a mood which has also helped to carry an independent candidate into the governorship for the first time in 120 years."

"I think (Kyros) was the most surprised man in the state of Maine on election night," said Emery, who survived a recount that reduced his margin of victory to 432 votes. "And I would have been right behind him."

Emery went on to serve eight years in Congress before losing a Senate bid in 1982 (to Mitchell, who seems to have shrugged off that '74 loss). Now 62, Emery emceed a fundraiser two weeks ago in Falmouth featuring former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

Their aim? To help another underdog Republican, Dean Scontras of Eliot, in his bid to unseat Rep. Chellie Pingree, the Democratic incumbent from North Haven who won office in 2008 after four years as head of Common Cause, a national nonpartisan government-reform lobbying group.

"I think he's made a favorable impression," Emery said of Scontras, who lost the Republican primary to Charlie Summers of Scarborough for this same seat two years ago. "Just looking at his growth over the past couple years, I'm impressed with the organization he's built. He's focusing on change in Washington and on economic issues."


Pingree's story is well known in Maine. She grew up in Minnesota, moved as a teenager to an island in Penobscot Bay, spent some time at the University of Southern Maine and eventually earned a degree in human ecology from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.

After graduation, she returned to North Haven -- located about 12 miles off the coast of Rockland and boasting a year-round population of about 400 -- and farmed.

She raised pigs and chickens. She sold vegetables from a stand, and later added sweaters knitted by island women. She started a company, North Island Designs, that employed about a dozen local women, selling sweaters, sweater-making kits and knitting books, mostly by mail.

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