BENTON — The size and shape of Maine's 2nd Congressional District has changed since voters last elected five-term Rep. Mike Michaud, but the challenger is a familiar face and both are hearing concerns repeatedly about such issues as jobs and Washington gridlock.
Republican Kevin Raye lost by 4 percentage points a decade ago in Michaud's first run to represent the most expansive U.S. House district east of the Mississippi in Congress. Now Raye is running against Michaud again, this time with eight years of experience in the state Legislature, two as Senate president, to highlight his theme as a problem solver.
Redistricting will give the rematch a different shape. The Democratic-leaning city of Waterville is now part of the 1st District, and 3,500 Republican voters have been added to the 2nd District, which still has a majority of registered Democrats.
Another change has been the recent behavior of Congress, which is one of the first things the two candidates hear from voters when they're campaigning.
"If there's any consistent thread, it's 'Why can't you guys get along?' People are just frustrated when they don't see progress ... and I agree 100 percent," Michaud said after a tour of the B & B Precise Products Inc. plant in Benton, which turns out precision parts for the aerospace and defense industries. The latter is of particular interest in Maine, home to General Dynamics' naval shipbuilder Bath Iron Works, a B & B customer.
Michaud, who stopped and chatted with workers as he toured the plant, was told that one of the company's big challenges is keeping programs that turn out skilled workers viable.
Raye, interviewed during a campaign swing through the Oxford County area of western Maine, said the most common theme he hears is "somebody has to do something about jobs." But, he adds, "People are disgusted with Washington."
Republicans control of the House 240 seats to 190 for the Democrats, with five vacancies. Democrats don't expect a takeover but want to close the gap.
Raye, an Eastport native and owner of a family mustard company, has worked hard to burnish a reputation as someone who can work with both sides to help break the gridlock in Washington. He points to a succession of state budget compromises and regulatory reforms that bear his handprints.
And at a time when fewer elected Republicans label themselves moderate, Raye says he's perfectly comfortable with the tag. He sees himself as cast in the political mold of his former boss, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, one of the last GOP Senate moderates, who is not seeking re-election. Raye worked for Snowe for 17 years, finishing as her chief of staff.
Snowe held the 2nd District seat for 16 years, followed by Democrat John Baldacci, who held it eight years before he was elected governor. So partisan tags mean little in a district and state where voters are known as ticket-splitters, said associate political Professor Jim Melcher of the University of Maine at Farmington.
Melcher said Raye is indeed a stronger candidate than he was a decade ago.
"I don't think Kevin Raye's done a thing to hurt himself," said Melcher.
But Michaud is stronger too, largely with the benefit of incumbency, which helps 90 percent of congressional candidates seeking re-election to win their seats, Melcher said.
"Incumbency trumps everything else in a congressional race" except scandal, said Melcher.
Raye sees Michaud's incumbency as a weakness, calling him "a reliable party line vote right."
Michaud, sensing the frustration over partisan breakdowns in Congress, has signed onto a lawsuit against the Senate to untie filibuster rules he says choke the process. He's also sponsoring a bill to deny members of Congress their pay until after a budget is passed.
Both Raye and Michaud support a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget.
Michaud, a former paper mill worker and longtime legislator from East Millinocket has also sought to prevent Maine jobs from vanishing through international trade treaties and by seeking to require the Made-in-USA label on military uniforms "from head to toe." Michaud's ads have also highlighted his support for veterans' issues, including opening clinics around the state.
Raye has trumpeted his endorsement by the National Federation of Independent Business and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Michaud's received the blessing of the AFL-CIO and Sierra Club.
Michaud supports the Affordable Care Act, while Raye believes the issue got too bogged down in politics in Congress, impeding the path to a bipartisan solution.
The 2nd District covers most of Maine's geographical mass, with the exception of a southern coastal swath.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.