One candidate has never held public office of any kind, was arrested this year while protesting President Trump’s immigration policies and is the first congressional hopeful to be a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Another is a disciple of libertarian lion Ron Paul who had a campaign staffer dress up in a chicken suit and suggested recently that his incumbent opponent will be happy only when a nuclear bomb is dropped on the United States.

Both are trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Angus King, the former two-term independent governor who is among Maine’s most popular elected officials in decades.

Not many expect King’s two opponents – Republican Eric Brakey, a two-term state senator from Auburn, and Democrat Zak Ringelstein, a former educator who lives in Yarmouth – to mount a serious challenge, but because they both have little to lose, the race promises to be entertaining.

Ron Schmidt, a University of Southern Maine political scientist, said both of King’s opponents face long odds.

“I think voters in Maine historically respond to a certain type of politician – the pragmatic, pothole-filling kind,” Schmidt said. “Angus King certainly fits that mold.”


Already, Brakey and Ringelstein, two millennials whose combined age is still 12 years shy of King, have joined forces on occasion to cast the senator as an out-of-touch career politician.

At a recent debate in Portland on gun rights, organized by a student group that formed following the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, the challengers hammered King for not attending.

Brakey even went one step further by showing up at a campaign office opening and confronting King while camera phones were set to record.

The senator, for his part, has taken the high road and seems content to maintain his image as the serious statesman while his opponents vie for oxygen. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, King has been in the middle of one of the most contentious issues of the Trump presidency – Russia’s role in interfering in the 2016 election.

Like most incumbents, King enjoys a comfortable fundraising advantage. Through June 30, he had raised $4.1 million and had $2.5 million left to spend. Brakey had raised $458,000 but had spent all but $75,000. Ringelstein was even farther back with just $75,000 raised, plus a $137,500 loan from the candidate, and $23,000 remaining.

The only public poll in the race, released in early August by Suffolk University, also shows the incumbent with a sizable lead. The survey of 500 registered Maine voters found 52 percent supporting King, 25 percent for Brakey and 9 percent for Ringelstein, with 15 percent undecided.


If King’s support stays above 50 percent, the race won’t even get to employ Maine’s new ranked-choice voting law for the first time ever in a U.S. Senate race.


Eric Brakey majored in theater in college and worked as an actor in New York City for a short time after graduation. His first introduction to Maine politics was in 2012, when he was part of the Ron Paul revolution at the Maine Republican Party convention.

Eric Brakey campaigns at the Great Falls Balloon Festival earlier this month. Brakey ousted a popular incumbent state senator while still in his mid-20s, and he was re-elected in 2016. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

From there, Brakey, still just in his mid-20s, ran for state Senate against a well-known incumbent Democrat and won. He was re-elected in 2016. In addition to being a lawmaker, Brakey has worked for his family’s business, Ohio-based Brakey Energy.

He drafted a successful bill that allowed Mainers to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, a big win for conservatives. He also has been outspoken on marijuana legalization, at a time when not many Republicans were in support.

He has been progressive on some issues, such as criminal justice reform, but reliably conservative on others, including welfare reform.


Brakey has chaired the Health and Human Services Committee and has stood out for his quietly aggressive style.

“A lot of people encouraged me to stay in the state Senate and run for leadership,” Brakey said in an interview this month. “But I found that so much of what we were doing at the state level was dictated by federal policy and funding.”

He declared his candidacy for U.S. Senate more than a year ago but had to wait around and see whether he might face a primary challenge.

Gov. Paul LePage, whose second term ends this year, flirted with the idea of taking on King. Though not a certainty, LePage likely would have bested Brakey in a primary had it come to that. But LePage decided not to run, leaving Brakey virtually unopposed. Another Republican, Max Linn, failed to qualify for the ballot.

Brakey has shown signs during the campaign that he might be a punchier candidate than he was a state senator.

He tweeted last month that King, who criticized Trump’s posture toward North Korea, would “only be happy when a nuclear bomb was dropped.” The comment surprised even some Republicans.


When King didn’t participate in a recent forum on gun rights – an issue where Brakey clearly departs – Brakey went to an event King held in Auburn to ask him why. The exchange was captured on video, which Brakey posted to his Facebook page. While the forum was going on, a Brakey campaign staffer stood outside in a chicken suit holding a sign taunting King.

Brakey has kept up that line of attack, regularly posting from the campaign with the tag, #where’sangus?

“With Angus King, I find consistently when I talk to people, that his support may be a mile wide but it’s an inch deep,” Brakey said.

Schmidt said Brakey’s reputation is that he’s principled but pragmatic. His campaign slogan has been “liberty for the little guy.”

“He’s betting that the ideology of Maine voters has shifted enough in his favor,” the political scientist said.

Trump didn’t win Maine in 2016 but he did win the 2nd Congressional District, and Brakey has spent a lot of time there so far. He seems to have warmed to Trump, too, particularly on foreign policy.


Brakey said he agreed that Trump is a major factor in the race and also said the he plans to “largely support the America First agenda” the president has championed.

So far, no outside money has been spent on the race. Schmidt said that could be a sign conservative or Republican groups don’t see the seat as winnable.

Brakey, though, said he expects that to change.

“But we don’t need $4 million like Angus King,” he said. “We have people willing to do for free what Angus has to pay people for.”


Zak Ringelstein is still largely unknown in Maine politics, although his profile has been growing as he aligns himself with the progressive, socialist wave of the Democratic Party that gained traction with Bernie Sanders and his supporters two years ago and has been reignited in younger voices, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.


Ringelstein, 32, grew up in New Hampshire, attended college at Columbia University in New York and then became a teacher. In 2012, he co-founded a company in California called UClass that offered online lesson plans and other resources to teachers across the country. He was invited to the White House in 2013 and in 2015 was named to Forbes’ annual 30 Under 30 list, in the education category. He later sold UClass to another company and stepped down.

Zak Ringelstein, 32, at right, greets Jason Hoffman of Florida and Anita Perkins of Atkinson at the Skowhegan State Fair. Ringelstein hopes to capitalize on the energy stirred up by young politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

From there, Ringelstein and his wife moved to Nashville, where he tried to make it as a country singer. It didn’t last long, but Ringelstein said it was a great experience.

The couple moved back to Maine, where his wife is from, and got teaching jobs.

Ringelstein said he decided to run for office after the 2016 election because he felt Trump posed a serious threat to the country.

“I like Angus King. I think he’s been a good public servant,” he said. “I don’t think he’s the right person to actually resist the Trump administration effectively. Angus King has voted with Trump almost 50 percent of the time. To say he’s progressive or even a Democrat is an argument I’m willing to have.”

According to FiveThirtyEight, a national data-based political news website, King has voted for Trump-backed bills 46 percent of the time, which is right in the middle.


So far during his campaign, Ringelstein has been part of many anti-Trump protests locally. In June, he traveled to Texas – at the height of the border crisis – to attempt to deliver supplies to children who were detained. Because he didn’t work first with a humanitarian agency, he wasn’t let in and was then arrested for refusing to leave. He documented the ordeal on his social media pages.

More recently, he completed a tour of Maine’s 16 counties in 16 days, camping out along the way. He said the people he’s heard from want change.

“The political system is so wired to support the groups who don’t need support, which is the ultra-wealthy and multinational corporations,” he said.

Ringelstein has pledged not to take any lobbyist or PAC money, although it’s not clear whether anyone is offering.

Schmidt said he doesn’t see Ringelstein as a spoiler in the race but said he could be trying to gain name recognition for a future run.

“The party can’t not put someone up,” Schmidt said. “He can establish bona fides and challenge King on the left on issues.”


Ringelstein, though, said he’s not thinking about the future.

“We’re running in 2018,” he said. “Like never before, we need the future to step up now, not later.”

When Angus King decided to run for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Olympia Snowe in 2012, he brought instant statewide name recognition as a popular two-term governor who served during a time of economic growth in Maine.

King, with 53 percent of the vote, easily defeated Republican Charlie Summers (31 percent) and Democrat Cynthia Dill (13 percent).


Though he’s an independent, King has caucused with Democrats during his first term in the Senate. He was in the majority for the first two years but has been in the minority since. In a recent interview, he said one of the things that has surprised him is how much power the Senate president has in deciding what bills make it to the floor.


Sen. Angus King speaks in Bangor with former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, one of two Maine political icons who recently endorsed him. Republican William Cohen also supports King, who is backed by groups like Planned Parenthood and the League of Conservation Voters.

He said his time in Congress has been both “exhilarating and frustrating.”

“The steering wheel of Washington may be in Washington, but it’s not attached to the engine,” King said.

He has been on the Senate Intelligence committee, which has been in the thick of the Russia investigation, and serves on the Armed Services and Energy and Natural Resources committees, too. He’s been critical of Trump but hasn’t swung at every pitch. He seems to get along well with Maine’s senior U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. He’s been a frequent guest on cable news shows and Sunday talk shows.

He likely won’t have to campaign as hard as his competitors because he’s so well known, but King said he’s taking the race as seriously as any other he’s been in. On a recent weekend, he spent three days riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle across Maine and stopping at several places along the way.

Schmidt said King is wise to let Ringelstein and Brakey fight for attention.

“If he gets into every debate with them, he runs the risk of punching down,” he said.



King said if he’s elected to a second term, it will be his last. He has no interest in being Strom Thurmond, the longtime South Carolina senator who served until he was 100 years old.

He had a health scare three years ago when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent surgery. It was his second bout with cancer; the first was when he was in his late 20s. King said his doctor has assured him that he’s plenty healthy for another six years in Washington.

King has received a host of endorsements already, from labor groups, Planned Parenthood, the League of Conservation Voters and most recently from a pair of Maine political legends, former U.S. Sens. George Mitchell, a Democrat, and William Cohen, a Republican.

In the recent poll from Suffolk University, King had the highest approval rating of any politician in the survey, with 63.2 percent saying they saw him in a favorable light.

Brakey had a favorable rating of 14 percent, but 37 percent said they had never heard of him.


Even more, 41 percent, said they hadn’t heard of Ringelstein, while 12 percent viewed him favorably.

If either Brakey or Ringelstein were elected, they would be the youngest senator by far. The youngest now is 41-year-old Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican.

History is working against them, though.

The last time an incumbent U.S. senator from Maine lost was 1978, when Democrat William Hathaway, first elected six years earlier, lost to Cohen. Cohen was re-elected to two more Senate terms before he retired in 1996 and became secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton. King’s colleague, Susan Collins, has held the seat ever since.

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