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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Loco for Local in Maine

It may be true that all politics is local, but in Maine the contenders in a Republican congressional primary are positively wallowing in locality — while making dubious claims about each other’s address.

In an attack ad launched May 16, former state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin twists the facts to make his opponent seem like a carpetbagger from the Land of the Lobbyists. And in a response, former state Senate President Kevin Raye says Poliquin is a “Wall Street millionaire” who just moved to the district himself.

Poliquin’s Attack

Poliquin’s announcer says, “He says he’s like us, but Kevin Raye made thousands working for Washington lobbyists, and didn’t sell his Virginia home before running for Congress.”

That’s all technically accurate — and yet misleading. The ad’s artful phrasing could easily lead a viewer to think that Raye just recently moved to Maine’s 2nd Congressional District after living in Virginia while working for a Washington lobbying firm. In fact, Raye has lived in the district nearly his entire life.

Technically, it’s true that Raye worked “for” one Washington-based lobbying group – but he worked for it in Maine, drumming up local opposition to an Affordable Care Act tax on medical devices. And it’s true that he made at least $2,000 doing that — he’s required to report sources of income over $1,000, and he did so in both 2009 and 2010. So he did make “thousands” for his brief stint, but exactly how much isn’t public knowledge.

And it’s also true that he lived in Virginia for six years – while working as chief of staff to Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe – and sold that home and moved back to Maine before his first run for the House. But that was back in 2001. The ad shows a date of “May, 2014,” but that’s the date of a newspaper story about the issue, not the move.

Raye’s Counterattack

Raye responded to the attack by questioning Poliquin’s hometown credentials — calling him a “Wall Street millionaire” and claiming that a 10-month-old baby has “lived in the 2nd district longer than Poliquin.”

And that’s also technically accurate (assuming the baby in the ad — which the campaign says is Raye’s great-great nephew — is really 10 months old and really born in the district, something we can’t verify independently). But it’s still misleading.

Poliquin did indeed make millions on Wall Street, but he’s no stranger to the district. He grew up in Waterville — just outside the 2nd District — and in nearby Oakland, which is just inside the district, and where his family has owned a lakeside summer camp for half a century. To be sure, he moved to his current residence in Oakland only in August, from an ocean-side home in the southern part of the state where he has lived for a number of years. But the current home is one built by his parents, and Poliquin was a co-owner with them as far back as 2007. He became sole owner when his parents moved to a retirement home recently.

Legally, none of this has any bearing. A U.S. representative doesn’t have to reside in the district he or she represents. The U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 2) requires only that a House member be an “inhabitant” of the state from which he or she is elected, on the day elected.

What the candidates are vying for is the emotional high ground on the us-versus-them divide. An earlier Raye TV ad concluded with the slogan, “From Here, For Us.” That’s what this Poliquin attack ad was responding to when the narrator says Raye “says he’s like us, but …” Raye’s newest ad concludes with the claim that Poliquin is “Not from here, definitely not for us.”

 Other Poliquin Attacks

Neither ad stops with merely questioning residency. We’ll go over the other attack points in order:

“True Stimulant” — The Poliquin ad’s narrator says, “Raye said Obama’s $800 billion spending spree was a true stimulant.” But Raye never said that, and the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act wasn’t all spending in the first place. An estimated $211 billion of the stimulus was in the form of tax cuts.

What Raye actually said in 2009 about the $900 million that Maine was expecting under the bill — as quoted directly in the very Bangor Daily News story that the ad cites as its source — is this:

“I think we have a responsibility to make sure as a Legislature we are doing everything we can to make sure that this funding will have the impact that it’s intended to have.” The reporter wrote: “The goal, Raye added, is that the money is spent as a true stimulant.” But the phrase “true stimulant” was a paraphrase, not a direct quote.

For the record, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that, at its peak point of effectiveness in the first half of 2010, the stimulus “increased the number of people employed by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million,” compared with what would have occurred without the stimulus program. Most economic studies agree that the stimulus had a positive effect, despite the partisan skepticism reflected in the Poliquin ad.

“Death Tax” and hunting fees — The Poliquin ad claims that Raye “voted to keep Maine’s death tax and to increase boat and hunting fees.” That’s another statement that is technically accurate but misleading. What Raye voted for in 2009 was a state budget that retained and amended the state’s existing estate tax to cover gifts made prior to death, and also raised fees for certain in-state hunting, fishing and other licenses by $4. There was no stand-alone vote on the estate tax, which Raye says he has voted against in the past. All but two Republican senators supported the budget that year.

“Costly new regulation” — The narrator states that Raye “was the only state Senate Republican to support a costly new regulation on small businesses.” In fact, the 2008 measure cost nothing because it never became law. It would have required retailers hawking extended warranties to tell their customers that state law puts an automatic four-year warranty on defective products.

Obamacare — The ad says Raye “voted yes on a plan to implement Obamacare in Maine.” That’s fairly accurate. There was no formally recorded vote, but Raye did serve in 2010 on a bipartisan committee on the Affordable Care Act that made “consensus” recommendations, including urging the state to set up its own insurance exchange (which it ultimately did not do). There was no dissent to the report.

In summary, the Poliquin ad misstates some facts and strains others to make a case that his opponent is “liberal.”

Other Raye Attacks

Raye’s response ad doesn’t engage on issues such as taxes or health care. It attacks Poliquin on several grounds, mostly accurately.

“He’s at it again” —  The Raye ad reaches back four years to show accurate snippets from a newspaper ad-watch story criticizing a Poliquin attack ad in an earlier race as “nasty,” “misleading” and “just plain wrong.” That was during Poliquin’s unsuccessful run for governor in 2010, and his target then was another Republican primary opponent, Les Otten. The Lewiston Sun Journal’s ad-watch story (available online only to subscribers) concluded: “Our view: The attack ad is nasty. It’s dramatic. It’s riveting. And, it’s only partly true.” Ultimately, Poliquin lost the nomination with 5 percent of the vote, but so did Otten, who got 17 percent. Winner Paul LePage went on to defeat his Democratic opponent in the general election and has been serving as governor since taking office in 2011.

“He got caught” — Raye’s ad recycles a tale familiar to Maine voters, saying Poliquin “got caught abusing the Tree Growth program to avoid paying property taxes on his ocean-side estate in southern Maine.” And it’s true that Poliquin managed to reduce taxes on his $3.4 million ocean-side estate in Georgetown, Maine, by taking advantage of a program that is supposed to promote commercial tree harvesting, even though his deed mostly restricts him from cutting down timber on the 12-acre property. Poliquin took his property out of the program in 2012 after being criticized for violating the law’s intent, but paid no penalty.

“Donated money to handgun control, attacking our gun rights” — The ad criticizes Poliquin for a $500 donation he made in 1989 to what is now the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. But more recently, he has written a May 3 op-ed article promising to defend the Second Amendment and saying that “I do not support, and never have, the extreme objectives of national gun control groups, such as a federal directory of gun owners or expanded background checks.”

Voting in the Maine primary is set for June 10. If the GOP winner goes on to victory in November, it would represent a pick-up for House Republicans; incumbent Democrat Mike Michaud is not seeking reelection and is running for governor instead.

— Brooks Jackson