July 22, 2012

Michael Cuzzi: Michaud still a strong fit

Raye will make it a race, but District 2 residents have many reasons to favor the incumbent.

QUESTION: “Are conditions ripe for an upset in the Kevin Raye/Mike Michaud race for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District?”

Probably not, even though Mike Michaud is facing his most significant campaign opponent in several election cycles.

Kevin Raye is an experienced politician who has risen to the rank of Maine Senate president after several years as retiring U.S. Sen. Olympia's Snowe's chief of staff.

Raye is comparatively well known, has a strong political network by dint of his Senate presidency, and has shown an ability to raise money. He's proven himself viable and earned the backing of the National Republican Congressional Committee, meaning he can expect money and operational support from Washington.

But Michaud remains a strong fit with his district, rising from a union paper mill worker to the state Legislature and finally to Congress. He is well liked and personally accessible, maintaining strong political ties, particularly among blue-collar workers and sportsmen. Voters perceive him as honest, hard working and "one of them." Moreover, Michaud retains the power of incumbency and has smartly pursued an issue platform well suited to the politics and demographics of his district.

Michaud's longstanding opposition to free trade agreements reflects the evisceration of the Second District's traditional manufacturing sectors and the economic uncertainty globalization has wrought in northern Maine communities. Moreover, the current national discourse around the outsourcing and off-shoring of American jobs during Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital is likely to give this issue even greater local currency.

Michaud has made veterans' issues and, in particular, veterans' health care a hallmark of his congressional tenure, rising to the post of ranking member and former chairman of the Veteran's Affairs Subcommittee on Health. Given the large veterans population in the second district, Michaud's tireless efforts on their behalf is typically rewarded on Election Day.

Moreover, Raye's legislative record in the state Senate gives Michaud several exploitable issues. Most potentially damaging is Maine's health insurance reform legislation that, as my column-mate Mr. Demeritt has previously noted, makes for bad politics. The law allows health insurance companies to charge higher premiums to older and rural residents, as well as those working in potentially hazardous professions. That's not exactly a convenient talking point with 2nd District voters.

Raye was also a co-sponsor of the same-day voter registration repeal legislation, a nearly 40-year election practice in Maine. The legislation was a thinly veiled attempt to suppress voter participation and was ultimately overturned by 60 percent of Maine voters at the ballot box. Raye will have to answer for his effort to limit the franchise, as well as the bill's resounding rejection by a statewide electorate.

Thousands of low-income seniors had their prescription drug assistance greatly reduced or eliminated when Medicaid (also known as MaineCare) was cut under Raye's leadership. These cuts made life harder and more untenable for a group of seniors with compelling medical needs and limited financial resources. That will be hard to sell in a district with a significant population of older residents who consistently vote.

Moreover, the Congressional Republican budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) proposes to end Medicare as we know it and replace it with a voucher program. Though Raye has been warmly embraced as a "Young Gun" by his party leadership, he remains conspicuously mum on whether he supports a Republican budget that would fundamentally alter Medicare for thousands of Maine's seniors.

Finally, the presidential election and the marriage equality referendum will create significant voter energy and drive participation. Supporters of the president and the referendum are most likely to be Democrats and independents, the same voting blocs that also support Michaud. Those political crosscurrents, along with the associated campaign machines turning out the vote, will give Michaud an important edge come Election Day.

In short, Raye will make it a race, forcing Michaud to work harder, smarter and expend more resources than he's typically accustomed to, but the likeliest outcome remains Michaud's election to a sixth term.

Michael Cuzzi can be contacted at mjcuzzi@gmail.com. Follow him on twitter.com @CuzziMJ

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