PORTLAND — Public approval ratings for Congress nationwide have plummeted to a point where, in some places, even seemingly entrenched incumbents, such as Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, were overthrown.

But in Maine, the seemingly widespread disapproval of Congress hasn’t tarnished voters’ opinions of the people they send to represent the state at the federal level. Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, the two incumbents in Maine’s congressional delegation seeking re-election this year, have maintained commanding leads in the polls over challengers, even though many similar polls show outright disdain for Congress as an institution.

“The approval rating for that entire group of people is between 8 percent and 13 percent, depending on what poll you look at. That’s horrible,” said Richard Murphy, a Sanford independent who, along with Gorham Republican Isaac Misiuk, is running against Pingree. “I haven’t heard one person say a positive thing about Washington.”

That disapproval of Congress overall may have contributed to at least one incumbent’s demise — the aforementioned Cantor was upset in his June GOP primary by an economics professor little known outside the district — but hasn’t seemed to dent the armor of Collins or Pingree.

It also highlights the risk Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud took by abandoning a safe seat in Maine’s 2nd U.S. House District to run for governor.

“Voters nationally are so dissatisfied with Congress that you’re starting to see that seep into their votes on their incumbents, but we’re not seeing that play out yet in Maine,” said Ronald Schmidt, political science professor at the University of Southern Maine. “For decades, voters here have seen Congress as a mess except for their particular part of it.”


The poll-tracking website RealClearPolitics.com reports that, across a slew of nationwide polls during the month of October, Congress’ average approval rating is hovering around 13 percent, with nearly 80 percent disapproving of the job it is doing.

Yet, during that same time period, Mainers polled chose both Collins and Pingree 2-to-1 over their respective opponents. In the most recent BDN/Ipsos poll, released this week, 64 percent of respondents said they supported Collins, compared with 32 percent backing Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows.

A late-October Pan Atlantic SMS poll found Pingree with more than 62 percent support, trailed distantly by Misiuk at 18 percent and Murphy at 6 percent.

“It makes perfect sense for someone to look at Congress as a policy-making body and say, ‘Oh, they’re not getting anything done, they’re bickering.’ On the other hand, they see their individual congressman in the community, bringing money back to their district and out at parades, and say, ‘My person’s not the problem. If everybody was like my congressperson, they’d work better together,’” said Mark Brewer, University of Maine political science professor.

“It’s hard to explain to constituents why we’re not getting anything done, but that’s the environment we’re living in,” said Pingree. “I think being in this particular do-nothing Congress — where people don’t want to bring anything to the floor or don’t want to vote on anything, when there are things we could be doing and dealing with — is frustrating.”

But even in that environment — where seemingly annual partisan clashes stall progress on the federal budget, health care law and judicial nominees — Pingree can boast amendments to the U.S. Farm Bill that benefit Maine’s small farmers or helping provide federal funding to replace the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge between Kittery and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.


Collins carved out space in that unpopular Congress to push for higher truck weight limits on interstate highways, long a top priority for Mainers, as well as fight for federal funding for shipbuilding projects at Bath Iron Works, among other things.

And both incumbents are simply likable, said Douglas Hodgkin, a political scientist and professor emeritus at Bates College in Lewiston.

“In both cases, they do project small-town roots,” he said. “With regard to Collins there’s Caribou and Aroostook County. She picked potatoes [growing up]. And Chellie Pingree is from a small town on the coast [North Haven]. So that’s part of the image for both of them. They’re able to connect with rank-and-file voters … [and] they don’t project an image of any kind of aloofness or not being one of the common people.”

The narrative being pursued by Bellows, Misiuk and Murphy — that Collins and Pingree, respectively, are contributing to the problems in Congress and shouldn’t be parts of the solution — hasn’t swayed polled Mainers.

In fact, Mainers throughout history have reliably sent their incumbents back to Congress regardless of how well-liked Congress has been over the years.

During the last five decades, Maine congressional incumbents have lost re-election bids only four times — and only once, when Democrat Tom Allen upended Republican James Longley Jr. in the 1st District in 1996, in the last 36 years.

“This has been true for quite a long time,” Hodgkin said. “Congress has fairly low ratings compared to our other institutions, but as I used to say in class, ‘People love their own individual congressman.’”

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