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A false attack ad on women’s weight could mark a Cain-Poliquin turning point

If you’re going to attack a woman political candidate over a women’s health issue, you’d better get the facts right.

Otherwise, you can expect a powerful backlash.

That’s happening now in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.

The race, a rematch between freshman U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and former state Sen. Emily Cain, is one of the tightest contests in the entire country.

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One of Poliquin’s allied groups, the National Republican Congressional Committee, has launched an ad attacking Cain for a bipartisan public health bill from several years ago. Trying to latch onto the furor over Republican Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to body-shame a former Miss Universe, the NRCC tried to turn the issue against Cain.

The group was hoping foggy memories of a non-controversial bill from 2007 would allow it to turn women’s and girls’ weight into a campaign issue.

I was working in Gov. John Baldacci’s administration when the bill was debated and a similar bill later passed. The way it’s described in the ad is not accurate. The bill was the response to a nonpartisan commission working to fight childhood obesity. It included strong opt-out provisions and complete anonymity for participants.

But don’t take my word for it.

The Maine Medical Association calls the ad an “irresponsible distortion of the facts” and “offensive.” The Maine State Nurses Association called it “outrageous” and “false.”

But the ad, an ugly example of the double standard women face when they run for office, gave Cain the opening for one of the most personal and powerful ads of the campaign season.

A screenshot of Emily Cain's ad "Better."

A screenshot of Emily Cain’s ad “Better.”

“Like a lot of women, I’ve struggled with my weight,” says Cain, sitting on a couch, looking straight into the camera. “It’s hard. It’s very personal. So for the special interests backing Bruce Poliquin to exploit the insecurities of teenage girls, it’s a new low.”

She’s honest and connects with the viewer in a way that’s hard to accomplish in political ads. She creates a real moment.

I count Cain as a friend; I have contributed to her campaign; and I was proud of the way she reacted to this attack.

The Cain ad and the back-and-forth have drawn local, national and international attention. Allure, New York Magazine, The Guardian, Press Herald, Maine Public Broadcasting, WCSH and WLBZ and the Bangor Daily News have all covered the ads, plus a whole lot more.

Poliquin has gone to great pains this year to try to avoid connecting himself to Trump while at the same time refusing to disavow him. Cain’s ad, and all the attention it’s received, has now thrown him right in the middle of Trump’s misogynistic meltdown with women voters. The congressman still painfully refuses to take a stand either for or against Trump.

While one public poll in the race has shown Poliquin with a lead, both the spending in the race by the campaigns and outside groups who support them — as well as legitimate private polling — tell me the race is close. (While the public poll was conducted by a reputable organization, the small sample size in the 2nd Congressional District creates a lot of doubt about the numbers in my mind).

Poliquin won his seat during a Republican, off-year wave election two years ago. This year, with Trump and Hillary Clinton atop the ticket, the electorate will be different, with more voters guaranteed to show up at the polls. The difference between 2014 and 2016 is akin to running in a different place altogether.

While Americans may hold Congress in disdain, they tend to re-elect their congresspeople with alarming frequency. In 2014, amid strong “throw the bums out” electoral rage, voters still re-elected 95 percent of congressional incumbents.

Incumbents have built-in advantages. They can usually raise money more easily than challengers, and they have the infrastructure of their offices to offer support, particularly when the lines between political events and congressional events blur. They have two years to communicate with their constituents, including through direct mail. It’s tough to overcome.

But the toughest test for incumbents is the first re-election campaign. Every cycle there are so-called “Fragile Freshmen,” a group that surely includes Poliquin. He’s vulnerable and remains under 50 percent in most polling, a dangerous place for any incumbent in a two-way race.

If Cain pulls off the upset, we may look back to the last couple of weeks and see that an attack ad that went too far and the strong response reset the race.

And hopefully this fall, once and for all, voters will reject this type of ugliness so we can stop talking about a woman’s appearance or weight as part of a political campaign.

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