SOUTH PORTLAND — The two challengers to U.S. Sen. Angus King criticized the independent from both sides during an hourlong debate Monday morning hosted by WGAN radio.
King, first elected to the Senate in 2012, mostly declined to respond to attacks from Democrat Zak Ringelstein, who targeted the senator for accepting corporate donations and for not being a bold leader, and Republican Eric Brakey, who went after King for what he called “big spending” and inconsistency on trade policies.
Monday’s debate was the first in the race among King, Brakey and Ringelstein. There are four more scheduled for next week.
There hasn’t been a lot of public polling to date, but King appears to be heavily favored to win re-election. In an online poll of 500 likely voters released Monday by the Portland firm Pan Atlantic Research, King had 57 percent support, compared to 29 percent for Brakey and 8 percent for Ringelstein, with 5 percent undecided. King also had a 64 percent favorability rating, the highest of any of Maine’s four members of Congress.
That poll shows the race hasn’t moved much since August, when a Suffolk University survey showed King at 52 percent, Brakey at 25 percent and Ringelstein at 9 percent.
Last week, the Brakey campaign released the results of a poll question the campaign paid for from the local firm Critical Insights, which showed a closer race. That poll of 600 registered voters had King at 41 percent, Brakey at 27 percent and Ringelstein at 7 percent, with 23 percent undecided.
King, in his opening statement Monday, said he wanted to seek re-election because he still sees a lot of challenges facing the country, including the opioid crisis and health, especially for seniors.
Brakey, a two-term state senator from Auburn, wasted no time in attacking King, calling him a “welfare queen” in a three-piece suit – a reference to the senator’s ties to the energy industry that have contributed to his wealth.
Ringelstein, a former educator who lives in Yarmouth, also criticized King for taking money from corporate-backed political action committees, including the defense contractor Raytheon.
According to the most recent campaign finance reports, King far outpaced his opponents in fundraising and cash on hand.
King raised $513,013 in the third quarter, for a total of $5.4 million since January 2017. He has $2.3 million for the last stretch of the race.
Brakey brought in $244,538 in the third quarter, for a total of $708,613. He has $110,646 cash on hand for the final weeks.
Ringelstein raised $34,783 in individual contributions in the third quarter for a total of $212,125 for the entire campaign, and he has $116,000 cash on hand. Ringelstein, who co-created and sold an education software company called UClass, has loaned his own campaign almost $200,000.
Monday’s debate moved quickly, but the candidates had an opportunity to weigh in on immigration, trade, foreign policy and the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Brakey staked out the conservative side, even using one of President Trump’s signature phrases, “America first,” at one point.
“President Trump has played tough on trade, but it’s been playing out and it’s been working out well,” he said. “We’ve got new trade deals with Canada, new trade deals with Mexico, new trade deals with the European Union. There’s still work to do. I want to see a new trade deal with China so we can finally get fair trade and stop getting taken advantage of.”
Ringelstein, by contrast, said he wants to see foreign money spent at home.
“I want to focus on our country, on our country investing in the working class and making sure that everybody has access to health care,” Ringelstein said. “That we have high-speed broadband here in America, … that we are paying our public school teachers more.”
King, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said America is a world leader and can’t simply retreat from foreign affairs, but he believes Congress should play a bigger role.
“Congress has to step in and be involved in foreign policy. We’ve ceded too much power to the president over the years,” he said.
That answer also prompted Brakey to jump in: “You know, I agree with Sen. King when he says that the executive branch has too much authority. The difference is that Senator King voted to give the executive branch a lot of that authority when President Obama was in the White House. This is the problem we have when our principles change depending on whether a Republican or Democrat is in charge.”
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Zak Ringelstein, left, listens as Republican candidate Eric Brakey, right, answers a question during a candidate forum hosted by Newsradio WGAN in South Portland on Monday. Incumbent Angus King, an independent, also attended the forum. (Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald)
U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, addresses challenger Zak Ringelstein, a Democrat, during a candidate forum hosted by Newsradio WGAN in South Portland on Monday. Also attending was challenger Eric Brakey, a Republican. Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald)