Posted Oct. 18, 2016, at 10 p.m.
AUGUSTA, Maine — Unanswered questions and deflections often illuminate political pressure points, and Monday’s 2nd Congressional District debate between U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, and Democrat Emily Cain had plenty of them.
The 2016 rematch of their race from two years ago has higher stakes, with nearly $11 million in spending on the race so far compared to just $6.7 million in their entire 2014 campaign, which Poliquin won with 47 percent of votes over Cain and a conservative independent.
They have been campaigning against each other in one way or another, so not much new ground was covered in this year’s first of three 2nd District debates, which was taped on Monday and aired Tuesday on Maine Public. But we may have identified some sore spots.
Poliquin attempted to summarily shut down Democratic attacks by calling them “false.” They’re not, but they need context.
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Near the debate’s start, Poliquin brought up a claim that surfaced in a recent ad from VoteVets, hitting him for “denying the VA the $1 billion it needed.”
He said the political action committee is “falsely criticizing me” to say he voted to “cut a billion dollars” from the Department of Veterans Affairs “and Emily has parroted that falsehood.”
You’ll notice that the ad didn’t say that, though it might want you to leave with that interpretation: It refers to actions taken in 2015, when House Republicans supported a budget increasing VA funding, but to the tune of $1.4 billion less than the Obama administration’s request.
Later, Cain criticized his vote for “a budget that cut Social Security, turned Medicare into a voucher program and cut Pell grants.” Poliquin called it “another falsehood and a big one from Emily,” saying he has “always voted to protect and secure Social Security and Medicare.”
But he did vote for the House Republican budget in 2015. It targeted billions in Social Security savings over 10 years, turned Medicare into a voucher system for new enrollees and frozen maximum Pell Grant awards for 10 years. All three programs would be smaller.
Cain also went to a standby attack line on Poliquin’s past use of a property tax break program intended to benefit commercial logging at his $3.4 million estate in Georgetown, where he was largely prohibited for harvesting timber by deed, although some trees were cut.
It allowed him to pay $21 in one year on 10 acres of the 12-acre property. Poliquin called it “a whopper.”
“I’m going to look in the camera, right at the people of Maine and just tell you, flat out, the truth,” Poliquin responded. “I have always paid all of my taxes in full, always.”
While that’s strictly true, his enrollment in the Tree Growth program lowered his property taxes significantly and was cited in a 2009 state report as an example of “problematic enrollment.” So it’s not as if it’s not an issue entirely.
The congressman also continued to avoid 2016 election questions about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and referendum questions.
Poliquin has avoided questions about his Trump support throughout the campaign, saying the presidential race is a “media circus” that he’s not getting involved in, though he told supporters in May that he thought Trump would win. He continued that line in the debate.
“I know it upsets a lot of folks in the media, because they live on confrontation,” he said.
That wasn’t surprising, but he also declined to give his positions on Maine’s five referendum questions: In order, they address marijuana legalization, establishing a new tax in income over $200,000 to increase education funding, expanding gun background checks to private sales and transfers, increasing the minimum wage and switching to ranked-choice voting. He expressed concern about the first four, but often said he didn’t want to tell Mainers how to vote.
However, Poliquin is supported by the National Rifle Association, which is leading opposition to Question 3 and Bangor Daily News granted a correction request from his campaign after originally writing this weekend that he hadn’t given a position. He had already opposed it.
Cain, however, outlined her positions: No on 1 and yes on the rest.
Cain skated on an old attack line about her support of a carbon tax.
Poliquin did seem to draw some blood with his attack on Cain’s support of a carbon tax that he said “would kill jobs” and drive up fuel costs. She has been attacked on that already in ads by House Republicans’ campaign arm this year. It was also an issue in 2014.
At one point during the debate, Cain responded by saying “nobody wants to increase the cost of energy,” going on to stress the importance of expanding access to natural gas, championing solar and other alternative energy sources and focusing on weatherization of old homes before pivoting back to Poliquin’s personal tax issues.
It’s a Republican attack that is thin on detail, because while Cain said she supported a carbon tax in a 2014 primary, she hasn’t discussed it in detail, so it’s hard to know how job-killing it would be. But it’s clear that new taxes aren’t in her talking points now.
The two candidates are scheduled to debate Wednesday evening in Presque Isle.