Republican congressional primary suddenly turns red hot

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Jun. 1—The Republican congressional primary in Maine's hotly contested 2nd District has gone from snoozefest to slugfest almost overnight.

The once-quiet contest between Liz Caruso of Caratunk and her better-known foe, former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Orrington, has taken a sharp turn in recent days after she began criticizing him for dodging debates and questioning whether he could prevail against the Democrats in November.

That spurred Poliquin's campaign manager, Ben Trundy, to fire back this week with a long email to party loyalists that insisted Caruso had launched "several false attacks against proven conservative Republican Bruce Poliquin" and taken a job in 2020 working for a campaign firm run by a top Democrat.

In a Facebook Live video and in messages to the Sun Journal on Wednesday, Caruso said Trundy's email, which she dismissed as "a panicked missive," is an indication that Poliquin is "freaking out and scared" and that she may beat him at the polls.

Caruso said, "If Bruce had earnest concerns about any of the questions in his silly email, and if he had any respect for the voters of Maine's 2nd District, he would take the opportunity to join me in an actual debate."

The increasingly harsh language between the two camps has raised the visibility of the June 14 primary that will decide which of them will hold the GOP line on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

The winner of the primary will take on two-term U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat, in the Nov. 8 general election. Independent Tiffany Bond of Portland will also appear on the ballot having filed the required paperwork this week.

Green Party stalwart Lisa Savage said Wednesday that Golden and Poliquin "have much to worry about" with Bond in the race. "She is just the type of person we need representing us" in the nation's capital, said Savage, a retired teacher from Solon.

But it remains possible that Poliquin, the district's congressman from his election in 2014 until Golden beat him in 2018, might face a bigger threat from Caruso than almost anyone anticipated.

To help sideline her, Trundy's email cited a series of items aimed at winning over hardcore Republicans who might consider Caruso.

An unexpected tidbit that appears to have hit home with some said Caruso was "on the payroll of a major Democrat community organizing firm which pushes liberal causes and candidates" during the recent fight to stop the New England Clean Energy Connect hydropower project.

Trundy said she collected "thousands of dollars" working for Revolution Field Strategies, a Democrat-oriented firm owned by a former deputy campaign manager for Joe Biden's presidential race.

"I am sure many Maine Republicans are surprised and concerned they did not know these facts about political operative Liz Caruso," Trundy wrote, adding that they would have come out sooner except that Caruso had delayed filing a required ethics form that disclosed the information.

Caruso said Trundy's email contained "ridiculously outlandish and untrue accusations" about her.

She said that during the bid to force a corridor referendum, after she had logged many volunteer hours in the fight to stop the project, "I was asked to come on as a paid 'volunteer coordinator' to facilitate the volunteer signature gatherers in seven counties from mid-October 2020 to mid-January 2021, when the petitions were delivered to the secretary of state. I also came on later that summer to help part-time with coordinating lawn sign distribution and state fair booths."

Caruso said the coalition against the corridor "ranged from lifelong Maine conservative activists to longtime Maine environmentalists, and everyone in between. Everyone, that is, except for Bruce Poliquin, who refused to take a position on what would have been the largest infrastructure project in Maine's 2nd District since the Maine Turnpike was constructed."

"I worked alongside thousands of other rural Mainers, including members of Bruce's campaign staff," Caruso said. "That's what makes this whole attack so silly. Even Bruce's own team knows how important this effort was to rural Maine, and how ridiculous a notion it is that the anti-corridor movement was some kind of partisan plot. "

Caruso said the real issue on the corridor is: "What is Bruce's position?"

"Did he support the project? Did he support the referendum? No one knows, because, as usual, Bruce Poliquin hides from the difficult questions," Caruso said.

"Every day, voters express their outrage to me about Bruce's unwillingness to debate our positions," she said. "He may think sitting behind a keyboard and launching attacks is enough for rural Maine voters, but on June 14, he will learn how truly unacceptable his shady tactics are to Maine Republicans."

In her campaign literature, she is telling grassroots Republicans they "have a choice" and then contrasts herself — "small business owner, home-school mom, true 2A defender, Maine Guide for 30 years" — with Poliquin.

She calls him a "Wall Street investor, professional politician" and "gun control donor" who "doesn't even live in our district," because he has a large, longtime home on the waterfront in Georgetown.

This week, she leaned on a bipartisan poll done for the Maine AARP recently to argue that Poliquin "can't beat Jared Golden in a general election."

She pointed out that while Golden has favorable ratings from every demographic of likely voters except Republicans, Poliquin is viewed unfavorably by every group except Republicans. Even among GOP voters, only 56% had a favorable view of Poliquin, she said.

"This is an alarming statistic," Caruso said.

She said, too, that Poliquin is dodging debates with her, passing up opportunities to answer questions on Maine Public and on News Center Maine. She said she remains willing to share the stage with him.

As Caruso turned up the heat, Trundy fired back.

His emailed memorandum, titled "Liz Caruso Was Paid by Biden's Deputy Campaign Manager," said Caruso's charges against Poliquin have shown a growing "pattern of deceit."

Among the charges cited by Trundy is that Caruso "has never supported Republican candidates for conservative causes" in the past but "now we have learned that she has, however, worked in the shadows as a paid political operative" for a Democratic firm.

He added that Caruso "tried to hide the information" by delaying the filing of a required ethics form and then filing an incomplete version before finally fessing up with the details.

Caruso said in response in her Facebook Live video that the "smear email" is mistaken.

"I'm not hiding anything," she said.

Caruso said she didn't know that Revolution Strategies, the firm paying her to work on the referendum push, was run by Democrats. She only knew it had overseen campaigns across the country.

She said she was just "a home-school mom picking up some extra work for a few months."

Trundy's memo also took issue with Caruso for her claim that Poliquin doesn't live in the district.

It said he bought the home in Orrington last fall because it is centrally located in the district. It also pointed out that Poliquin "was born and raised in Maine," just outside Waterville, while Caruso is not. She attended an elite high school in Massachusetts and later worked as an engineer in Connecticut.

Caruso said she moved to Maine more than three decades ago and loved it so much she became a Maine Guide and never left the state.

"I moved up to The Forks and it's the greatest decision I ever made," she said.

Trundy also criticized Caruso for posting directly on the Gun Owners of Maine Facebook page claiming that Poliquin had voted for a gun control measure. Asked to support her claim, Trundy said she was silent so the group removed her post.

"It's shameful that Caruso attempted to deceive the Maine people about Bruce's proven record of supporting our Constitutional rights, including the 2nd Amendment," Trundy said.

The bottom line for Republican voters, Trundy said, is that "you know Bruce; you can trust him to be your voice and vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. A vote for Bruce Poliquin on June 14 will send a message we are taking this seat back."

Caruso said a vote for her would send a message that voters want a voice for rural Maine on Capitol Hill.