The two Republican candidates who showed up for Wednesday’s 2nd Congressional District debate sponsored by News Center Maine never even mentioned the competitor who skipped the event.

A News Center Maine debate hosted by Pat Callaghan showcases two of the three 2nd District Republican congressional candidates vying in the July 14 primary.

Dale Crafts of Lisbon and Adrienne Bennett of Bangor focused instead on touting their support for GOP President Donald Trump, opposition to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and worry about excessive national debt.

The pair, as well as Eric Brakey of Auburn, are vying for grass-roots Republican support in a July 14 primary that will decide which of them is the party’s choice to challenge first-term U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat.

Brakey, who has raised the most money among the Republican contenders, opted not to participate in the Voice of the Voter debate hosted by Pat Callaghan, an anchor with the NBC station in Portland.

The candidates were not physically present, appearing instead from remote locations in a broadcast that went far more smoothly than the typical Zoom meeting.

“Mainers do deserve to hear from all three of us,” Bennett said at the start of the half-hour show, the closest either of Brakey’s opponents came to noting his absence from the campaign’s first televised debate.

The low-key debate reflected a political reality that Bennett and Crafts have little incentive to antagonize each other’s backers because, in a ranked-choice voting race, they each want to be the second-place choice of anyone who prefers the other.

In the debate, Crafts, a former legislator and small business owner, emphasized his real-world experience trying to make a profit.

Bennett, a real estate agent who served for almost seven years as press secretary to Gov. Paul LePage, touted her commitment to Trump and his agenda.

Both Crafts and Bennett said Trump has done well in trying to unify the nation, though Bennett noted, “We are in a very partisan time in our country.”

Asked about Trump’s leadership during these tumultuous times, Crafts said the president has done his best to keep the country informed.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 110,000 Americans since February, has been a challenge, they said.

“Nobody was prepared for this, including him and his administration,” Crafts said. “This is something nobody saw coming.”

The New York Times reported, however, that Trump’s own administration, warned last October that the federal government was both unprepared and underfunded for dealing with a pandemic much like the one that hit months later.

Bennett didn’t offer even a hint of criticism for Trump, insisting she’s all-in with his America First agenda.

Crafts expressed sympathy for George Floyd, a black man murdered by police in Minnesota last month, saying that “what took place is very sad.”

He said it is ludicrous to seek to defund the police, as some demonstrators have called for, but some reform is needed to weed out “bad apples.”

“Change doesn’t come from demonstrations,” Bennett said. She said what’s needed is to pore over budgets and set priorities by seeing common ground.

She said she wants to see justice, but “I stand with law enforcement and always will.”

Both Bennett and Crafts denounced Mills for assuming too much power in her quest to slow the spread of COVID-19. They each said Maine needs to reopen closed businesses quickly to catch as much of the summer tourism season as possible.

“We have one branch of government right now,” Bennett said.

Crafts added that Mills “has taken sole power.”

The Legislature, however, gave Mills the power to act and has taken no steps to rein her in. There are court cases filed against her, but judges have shown no inclination to thwart her efforts to protect public health.

Neither Crafts nor Bennett expressed any sympathy for those burdened with high student debt.

“People ought to be responsible for their own decisions,” Crafts said. He said more young people ought to go into the trades instead of heading to college.

“I was able to pay my way through community college,” Bennett said, and her daughter is following suit. She said, too, that society needs “to stop pushing our kids toward the university.”

Crafts and Bennett each tried to emphasize their closeness with LePage as well as Trump. Bennett worked closely with him for years. LePage, though, endorsed Crafts. Crafts said Shawn Moody, the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate in 2018, is also on his side.

Brakey, who got married last weekend, claimed to have an online forum at the same time that kept him from participating in the debate. He was a state senator for two terms before running unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2018 as the Republican challenger facing independent U.S. Sen. Angus King.

The winner of the primary will face Golden in the general election on Nov. 3. It appears there won’t be any independent or third-party contenders in the race.

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