Republicans say Lewiston is key to victories in November

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Jun. 17—LEWISTON — For more than half a century, nobody's been elected governor without winning Lewiston.

So Republicans, who held the Maine GOP Unity Rally in their Main Street headquarters Friday, are especially keen to capture the Democratic-leaning city in November.

For former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who hopes to regain the office he held for two terms from 2010 to 2018, it's also personal.

"It's more important to me than anybody else," LePage said Friday. "I grew up here."

More broadly, though, LePage said Lewiston "is where the rubber meets the road," so it's likely to be a prime battleground in elections for the Blaine House and the 2nd Congressional District.

The rally drew candidates and party loyalists from across Maine to make their case to voters they think are fed up with high prices and political divisions.

To put it simply, "the Democrats are screwing everything up," said Gene McKeever of Nobleboro, a retired insurance executive.

"We need to get some common sense back into America," said Ed Thelander of Bristol, the GOP candidate for the 1st District congressional seat that U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has held for the Democrats since winning an open seat in 2008.

Republican Bruce Poliquin of Orrington, a former congressman seeking to recapture the 2nd District seat currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, called the rally a "big event" for his party.

"It's important for us to have a unified front," said Liz Caruso of Caratunk, who lost a primary this week to Poliquin. She showed up at the rally, she said, because the stakes are so high for the country. She said a Republican victory is crucial to "take America back."

Poliquin said the Republicans have to win over independents — and that the inflationary spiral that is pushing the price of gas, food and other necessities higher will boost the GOP at the polls.

"We're trying to turn the Titanic," said state Rep. Jim Thorne of Carmel, who carpooled with state Rep. Sherm Hutchins of Penobscot to attend the rally.

"We're on a downward slide," said Robert McCarthy, a Republican state House candidate in Lewiston and member of the City Council. "We need to turn things around."

"It's time for change," said state Sen. Jeff Timberlake of Turner, the GOP leader in the state Senate.

Thorne said the two major parties are "going in such different directions. The aisles seem to be getting further apart."

The Republicans, he said, have a simple message: "We want lower taxes. We want less government oversight. And we want less government period."

McKeever said the reality that Democrats don't want to face is that "fuel runs this country," so imposing more regulations on the oil and gas industry, shutting down pipelines and pushing policies for a greener future are hurting the nation.

"They're choking us," he said.

Thelander said moving toward a greener future is a good idea, but it's necessary "to slow down and do it right."

Republicans said LePage has what it takes to win Lewiston, despite the big victory Democratic Gov. Janet Mills racked up in 2018.

"She wasn't running against LePage," McCarthy said.

McCarthy said LePage is a better candidate than Shawn Moody was in 2018 and a better contender generally.

He said LePage has "calmed down the rhetoric" that gave him a national reputation for outrageous commentary while Mills has "hurt her" chances with her unnecessarily harsh crackdowns to try to thwart the spread of COVID-19 in Maine.

In his previous campaigns for the state's top job, in 2010 and 2014, LePage won Lewiston by wide margins. He racked up 3,500 more votes than the Democrats during the two races.

Yet four years ago, Moody got creamed in Lewiston. Mills, who had worked as a prosecutor in the city earlier in her career, racked up 7,056 votes in the city compared to 5,497 for Moody.

Even so, Lewiston provided the second highest number of Republican votes for Moody among all of Maine's municipalities, one of only two cities to provide him with more than 5,000 votes.

Reversing the 2018 outcome in Lewiston would clearly make a huge difference to LePage's chances of victory this year.

His quest for votes in Lewiston is helped by disarray in Democratic ranks that helped propel a Republican majority win City Council races last fall after several election cycles where the party had made advances.

Meanwhile, the congressional race — which pits Poliquin, Golden and independent Tiffany Bond of Portland — features a nearly identical rematch of their 2018 contest, one of the costliest and ugliest in the nation that year, spurred largely by outside groups with oversized budgets for television and radio advertising that the candidates have no say in.

Ben Trundy, Poliquin's campaign manager, said he anticipates this year's race will probably see even more spending by independent groups pushing one candidate or the other.

"We just need to stay focused," he said, "and tune out the outside noise."