Angus King’s challengers are clamoring for attention, but history is working against them

Good morning from Augusta, where two longshot major-party candidates are trying desperately to gain ground on U.S. Sen. Angus King, who was on a motorcycle tour of Maine this weekend and has seemed to be doing his best to ignore their existence so far.

King, an independent former two-term governor who caucuses with Democrats, cited a scheduling conflict as a reason for skipping a student-led Thursday debate that focused on gun policy in Portland. His 2018 opponents, state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, and educator Zak Ringelstein of Yarmouth, went anyway.

Brakey had someone in a chicken suit walk around Portland to tease King and an empty chair was left for the incumbent during the debate as Brakey and Ringelstein — who has been arrested twice during acts of protest during his campaign — disagreed on virtually everything except that they wanted King there. For now, their race is an uphill one.

Brakey and Ringelstein presented heavily partisan positions on guns. Brakey is one of the Legislature’s most absolute gun-rights supporters and championed a bill eliminating the requirement for a concealed-handgun permit. Ringelstein is about his exact opposite on that issue, saying during the debate that gun manufacturers should be held liable for gun violence.

Brakey said “gang violence” is “one of the biggest contributing factors” to gun violence in the U.S. and that it is concentrated in urban areas with strict gun control policies. Ringelstein responded by saying there was “a hint of classism and racism in just about everything you just said,” drawing groans from Brakey backers in the audience.

At different points in the debate, he hit Brakey for his ties to the National Rifle Association and hit King similarly for taking money from special interests. Brakey tried to paint King as a gun-grabber, while Ringelstein portrayed him as in league with Republicans.

If King was there, the debate would been more about him, but he would have looked quite moderate despite an overall voting record resembling a conservative Democrat. He has largely backed gun control in the Senate, supporting the expansion of background checks while opposing a ban on so-called “assault weapons.”

Maine likes its incumbent senators and King’s popularity is a huge hurdle for the two party candidates. To find a competitive U.S. Senate race in Maine involving an incumbent, you have to go back to 1972. That’s when Democratic U.S. Rep. William Hathaway knocked off the legendary Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican who was 75 years old and had been heavily criticized for being out of touch before her challenge from Hathaway, who lost handily six years later.

The challengers may take a positive lesson from this, since Smith’s loss shows even titans can be beaten. But Smith’s situation was unique and localized, coming at the same time that President Richard Nixon, also a Republican, carried Maine easily for re-election.

For now, King seems to also be cruising in 2018. A Suffolk University poll released last week measured the incumbent’s support at 51.6 percent, ahead of Brakey at 25 percent and Ringelstein at 8.8 percent. Another 14.6 percent of voters were undecided.

King’s last election was a political eon ago, with the election of President Donald Trump vastly changing the tenor of debate. Brakey has suggested that King wouldn’t mind if the U.S. was attacked with a nuclear bomb because it would mean Trump’s foreign policy has failed.

The senator ignored that, but he won’t be able to do that forever. The heat is going to ratchet up on King between now and November regardless of what the polls say. At this point, it’s just difficult to see how the two challengers can dirty King up enough to beat him.

Dillon Bates responds

A lawmaker accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls says he is innocent. Rep. Dillon Bates, D-Westbrook, said through his attorney last week that accusations against him, which were published by The Bollard based on an anonymous source, are untrue. In the wake of the accusations, Bates has resigned from his position as an athletic coach but so far has refused to resign his seat in the House of Representatives.

His attorney, Walter McKee, said in a written statement Friday that the accusations are “mere rumors” and that Bates resigned the coaching position so students and the school “would not suffer from the media firestorm [that] is somehow viewed now as an admission of guilt.”

House Republicans say they will propose an order for an investigation into the matter whenever the House returns to Augusta.

Reading list

  • Susan Collins says her decision on Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee won’t be affected by pressure from national groups. Collins, a Republican, is meeting with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh next week and says she will assess his testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 4 before making a decision about how she will vote. Collins has signaled in the past that she would not support anyone hostile to the Roe v. Wade abortion case, which could make her vote crucial in a closely divided Senate. Collins is facing mounting pressure from groups such as the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which has launched a television campaign targeting her. But she has never voted against a Supreme Court nominee in more than 20 years as a senator.
  • Maine’s health and human services chief is retiring. Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Ricker Hamilton announced Friday that he will retire at the end of August after more than 40 years in state service. LePage has appointed Bethany Hamm, director of DHHS’ Office of Family Independence, as acting commissioner.
  • Secrecy shrouds a proposal for a new state psychiatric hospital in Bangor. A Florida-based company that could be in line to win a $60 million state contract to run a 21-bed facility for some psychiatric patients is fighting to keep its proposal secret, according to the Associated Press. The facility is being considered to house patients currently referred by the Maine Department of Corrections at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta but who no longer need hospital-level care. Florida-based Correct Care has not released a plan and the LePage administration refused multiple requests to detail how it expects to run and fund the facility. LePage shifted his focus to the Bangor site, which is on the campus of the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, after a 2016 flap with lawmakers over building it in Augusta.
  • An environmental movement in China is increasing recycling costs in Maine. Officials in the town of Gouldsboro told the Bangor Daily News that the cost for its curbside recycling program has already jumped from $80 a ton to $137 a ton and could soar to $200 a ton by the end of this year. The rise is partially due to China banning imports of 24 varieties of waste items from the United States and other countries as of Jan. 1, 2018.

Treat your car keys like Popsicles to avoid theft

USA Today reports that today’s fancy electronic key fobs, which allow you to unlock your car with the push of a button as opposed to the insertion of a key, make your car vulnerable to theft. Some fobs are on all the time and apparently the baddies can use the signal even when the keys are safely lost in your couch cushions.

Researchers from Radboud University and the University of Birmingham suggest leaving your keys in your refrigerator, in the microwave or wrapped in tin foil as a measure of prevention.

I see flaws. Won’t my frozen key stick to my skin? What if we turn on the microwave with the key in it? I have a teenager in the house and when he sees things wrapped in foil in the fridge, he eats them.

I dunno, I think I’ll stick with my tried and trusted anti-theft method: just drive cars no one would ever want to steal. It’s worked for this long. Or, I could put my keys inside a 330-pound NFL player. That’d work better than anything. Here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.