It’s become a truism that President Donald Trump, once shunned by the Republican Party establishment as a crude, clownish political dilettante of uncertain principles, has hijacked the party, intimidating incumbents who don’t demonstrate fealty to him by threatening primary challenges while dangling endorsements before candidates who fawn over him.

Still, it must be uncomfortable for bipedal humans to belly crawl towards Trump as Maine’s three GOP candidates for the 2nd District Congressional seat have strenuously attempted to do.

Earlier this month, candidates Adrienne Bennett of Bangor and Dale Crafts of Lisbon publicly released a letter to U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, urging him not to run for the presidency.  No one seriously thinks Amash, who quit the GOP and became an independent, has the slightest chance of winning. However, many Republicans are concerned that an Amash third-party candidacy might siphon enough votes away from Trump in battleground states to cost him the race.

Adrienne Bennett, left, Eric Brakey and Dale Crafts. File photos

Amash is a libertarian conservative who has taken positions contrary to Trump’s on impeachment, increased military spending, tariffs, and treatment of undocumented immigrants, and the president, in turn, has blasted him with hyperbolic insults, calling him “a total loser” and of “one of the dumbest & most disloyal men in Congress.”

It’s not unusual for Republican or Democratic politicians to try to dissuade third-party interlopers from gate-crashing a close race.  What’s noteworthy in this instance, however, is the way Bennett and Crafts did so.  In their letter to Amash, they  touted Trump as “a man who has demonstrated his commitment to putting America first and making America great again” and then “respectfully” asked Amash to step aside by telling him his “candidacy insults the American people and the institution of the Presidency.” If that’s asking “respectfully,” I wonder what they’d consider disrespectful.  But then the whole point of the exercise wasn’t to persuade Amash but to pander to Trump.

A joint letter by congressional hopefuls Adrienne Bennett and Dale Crafts in Maine’s 2nd District called for independent Justin Amash to drop his presidential bid. Eric Brakey, the other GOP contender in the 2nd District primary, won’t sign it. Submitted photo

At the bottom of their letter, Bennett and Crafts left a blank signature line (highlighted by a red “SIGN HERE” sticker) for Eric Brakey, the third GOP contender in the congressional race. It was blank, because Brakey, who himself is libertarian leaning, refused to add his John Hancock.

Not that this act of defiance should make Brakey eligible for a profile-in-courage award. Instead of vocalizing principled support for Amash’s right to chart his own course, Brakey had his spokesman sidestep a question about the candidate’s refusal to sign by explaining, “Eric is focused on getting Maine people back to work, not writing letters to politicians in Michigan.”

But this was only part of the candidates’ lickspittle behavior. When Rick Savage, owner of the Sunday River Brewing Co. in Bethel, made a media splash early this month by openly defying Gov. Janet Mills’ emergency executive order that had closed sit-down restaurants as non-essential businesses, Trump approvingly retweeted an admiring right-wing blog comment about Savage, “We need a million more Rick Savages.”

The retweet prompted Bennett and Brakey to engage in a monkey-see, monkey do exercise on social media.  Brakey proclaimed, “I stand with Rick,” while Bennett declared that Savage “just showed all of America what Maine people are made of.”  It apparently never occurred to these two that applauding the actions of a brazen lawbreaker was at odds with the pledge to support and defend the law that is embedded in the oath of office either would be required to take if elected in the fall.

In March, Bennett criticized Brakey for putting “the lives of vulnerable Mainers in jeopardy” by conducting a door-to-door campaign.  Yet the following month, in the wake of Trump’s tweets encouraging protesters in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia to “liberate” their states from shut-down orders by their Democratic governors, she cheered on demonstrators calling for the prompt reopening of Maine businesses. By failing to practice social distancing, many of the demonstrators, who had congregated near the State House in Augusta on Patriots’ Day, not only ignored the governor’s executive order but the public health guidance underlying the order. Apparently unwilling to place her own health at risk while encouraging others to endanger theirs, however, Bennett avoided appearing at the protest in person, opting instead to make a virtual online appearance holding a sign showing her support.

Bennett also called out Brakey for supporting U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, a libertarian Kentucky Republican, in Massie’s attempt to force a roll call vote on the two trillion dollar pandemic relief bill which came before the House of Representatives in March.  This resulted in a procedural delay in passage of the bill which so angered Trump he labeled Massie a “third rate Grandstander” and called for his ouster from the Republican Party.  Trying to echo Trump, Bennett sent out a news release misleadingly headlined, “Trump calls for throwing Brakey out of the GOP.”

The last time the Republican Party was taken hostage by a demagogue of Trump’s ilk was in the early 1950s, when U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin held the public and politicians spellbound for nearly five years with wild accusations of widespread Communist infiltration of the federal government. In the process, McCarthy ran roughshod over due process, destroyed many innocent lives and careers, and silenced critics within his own party with the charge they were “soft on Communism.”  The spell wasn’t broken until 1954, when the Senate, with Republican support, finally censured McCarthy for his irresponsible behavior.

If Maine’s 2020 Republican congressional candidates want to recover their self-respect and earn the respect of the electorate, my unsolicited advice is this:  Stop crawling towards Donald Trump and stand upright.

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