PORTLAND — The two challengers seeking to unseat Maine’s Democratic 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree say they’re more in touch with average voters than the three-term congresswoman.
Pingree, who enjoys a huge polling and financial advantage in the state’s left-leaning southern district, says that argument is tired and her record proves otherwise.
Both Gorham Republican Isaac Misiuk, 25, and Sanford independent Richard Murphy, 37, are vying for the North Haven Democrat’s U.S. House seat this year.
Both face uphill climbs against an incumbent ranked among the 50 wealthiest representatives in Congress by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. But both challengers also contend they can use Pingree’s massive financial upper hand to their own advantage, painting her as too rich to understand the problems of low and middle class Mainers.
“Maine has [1.3] million residents and only 26,000 are millionaires,” said Murphy, a National Guardsman and longtime construction worker and engineer. “She is representative of that small group, but that leaves a lot of us out in the cold. … I’m hoping [voters] look at me and say, ‘This guy understands what it’s like not knowing if he can fill his gas tank this week.’”
Misiuk, a non-traditional sophomore at the University of Southern Maine, is taking a similar approach to his campaign, albeit with the slant of casting himself as the voice for younger voters.
“I’ve struggled with the question of whether to buy formula and food or pay rent,” said Misiuk, who is engaged and has a young son. “I’ve never had to consider the question of which champagne to have on my private jet.”
Misiuk has interned in the office of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, held a leadership position in the Cumberland County Young Republicans and worked as a field organizer for the College Republican National Committee.
Misiuk and Murphy has each said his experience of trying to settle into stable employment should resonate with Maine voters, many of whom are still struggling to recover from the recent recession.
Misiuk worked in retail, managing a RadioShack before moving on to a job in real estate. Murphy, a Massachusetts native, moved to Maine five years ago in hopes of finding work, but was forced to take contract jobs in Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia after coming up empty on the Pine Tree State job market.
“Everyone’s still struggling. I’m still struggling and the powers that be don’t seem to be doing what they need to in order to make things better,” Murphy said. “I’m working two jobs. My wife is working two jobs. We’re doing what we have to do to make ends meet.”
Pingree, 59, said she understands the struggles Mainers are going through, that she meets with, takes calls from and reads letters from constituents regularly.
In 2011, she married Donald Sussman, a billionaire investor and owner of the Maine Today Media newspaper group who donates heavily to Democratic candidates and causes, but said that relatively new wealth doesn’t change the values she previously applied to her years of political service, going back to her eight years in the Maine Senate.
“This is the fourth time I’ve run, and every election cycle, whether it was the man I was dating or the man I married, the GOP tries to criticize me through him,” Pingree said. “My voting record hasn’t changed since long before I met Donald. I’ve been married for three years, but I spent decades trying to start small businesses or being a single mom, and those are the experiences I bring with me into Congress.”
A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald late last month found that Pingree’s already sizeable lead in the race may have grown over the last three months.
The same organizations released poll numbers in June showing Pingree holding a lead of 56 percent to 21 percent over Misiuk. By the next poll in late September, support for Pingree had grown to 66 percent, with Misiuk’s backers dropping to 13 percent.
Murphy did not move the needle on either of the polls, a fact the independent dismissed in part as a result of his lack of name recognition early on, a deficiency he hopes to overcome through a month of grassroots, street-level campaigning.
Murphy, who leans Libertarian in many of his political views, blasted Pingree’s support of Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, as well as her stance favoring stricter record-keeping standards for gun shows and bans on large-capacity ammunition feeders.
Misiuk said he opposed Obamacare’s mandate that nearly all Americans sign up for health insurance, but admitted he’s taking advantage of the part of the law allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26.
The GOP candidate wants to see Congress pass a law prohibiting expenditures from the Social Security account — saving that money exclusively for those who paid into it — as well as cuts to military spending and the abolishment of the federal Department of Education. The work performed by the latter department, he said, should be left in the hands of state-level school administrators.
Pingree said she wasn’t thrilled with final version of the Affordable Care Act either, but, unlike her opponents, said the health care law didn’t go far enough. She said she would have supported something closer to universal, government-run health care similar to what’s offered in Canada and other developed nations.
The incumbent said her support for the law, which aims to make health insurance more accessible to lower income people, as well as her support for a higher minimum wage, are examples of ways she remains the better candidate for struggling Mainers, even if she’s no longer in the same tax bracket.
Pingree sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which she said puts her in a prime spot to push government funding for state transportation projects like the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge replacement and programs benefiting Maine employers like Bath Iron Works and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery.
All three candidates said they’re skeptical about increased U.S. military involvement in war-torn countries like Iraq and Syria, where Obama has authorized airstrikes in response to belligerent activities by the terrorist Islamic State.
During the most recently reported federal filing period, which ended June 30, Pingree raised just over $303,000, with nearly $314,000 cash on hand. Misiuk raised just over $15,000 by the June 30 filing deadline, but ended the period with just under $1,300 cash on hand. The Federal Election Commission has not posted fundraising reports for Murphy.