Maine GOP Primary Is Becoming a Proxy Fight Over War, Saudi Arabia

The race in Maine provides an up-close look at the divisions inside the Republican party and the financial backing of each side.

Eric Brakey, Republican candidate for Congress, speaks at an anti-stay-at-home protest on April 20, 2020, in Augusta, Maine. Photo: Robert F. Bukaty/AP

As an anti-war Republican wages an aggressive and well-funded campaign in the July 14 primary for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, a mysterious dark-money super PAC has spent $345,000 in the last three weeks attacking him.

The Cook Political Report rates the district as one of just 15 Democratic-held toss-up seats in the nation. As the Republican Party faces a raucous and often acrimonious debate between Rep. Thomas Massie and Sen. Rand Paul on one end and former national security adviser John Bolton, Sen. Tom Cotton, and Rep. Liz Cheney on the other, the race in Maine provides an up-close look at the divisions inside the party and the financial backing of each side.

On one end of the race is Paul-endorsed former state Sen. Eric Brakey, who is, like Paul, a libertarian who is highly skeptical of U.S. militarism and has been an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia. “When it comes to foreign policy, I want us to be realistic,” Brakey told the Washington Examiner in 2017. “I think that it’s crazy that we have our troops in 177 different countries, that we’re in Afghanistan 16 years later, when the youngest soldiers currently going in there were two years old when we went in there in the first place.”

On the other end is former state Rep. Dale Crafts, who said during a debate with Brakey in February that the U.S. economy would “absolutely collapse tomorrow” if the U.S. reduced its presence in 800 military bases scattered around the globe, saying, “China and Russia would overtake the world. … Al-Qaeda and ISIS would go rampant and Israel would be wiped off the face of the earth.”

Crafts’s campaign is teamed up with Eaton River Strategies, owned by a registered foreign agent of the government of Saudi Arabia.

Also in the mix is Adrienne Bennett, a former spokesperson for Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who isn’t running on any particular set of foreign policies. A poll released Wednesday shows a tight race, though Maine’s instant runoff voting makes prognostication difficult. Crafts is currently polling in first place at 37 percent, Bennett in second at 25 percent, and Brakey third at 19 percent. “It’s troubling that a registered foreign agent being paid by Saudi Arabia is working to defeat a candidate that is critical of Saudi Arabia,” said Ben Freeman, a researcher at the Center for International Policy.

Crafts, the establishment candidate, has received many more endorsements from his former Republican colleagues in the Maine legislature than Brakey.

Incumbent Rep. Jared Golden won the seat in 2018 from two-term Republican Bruce Poliquin. The district provided Donald Trump his only electoral vote in New England in 2016, under the semi-unique system that Maine shares with Nebraska that allows the state to split its electoral votes by congressional district. Though less brash than Crafts, Golden has closely hued to the mainstream foreign policy agenda, voting last week with a majority of Democrats and Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee for the Cheney-Crow amendment aimed at continuing the war in Afghanistan.

Brakey began his career in politics by running Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign in Maine. As a member of the Republican platform committee in 2016, Brakey sought to add language to the platform that would guarantee the declassification of the famous 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission report, an effort fiercely fought by Saudi Arabia and its lobbyists in Washington. Brakey also sought to have language included in the platform that would have unequivocally condemned U.S. intervention in Libya. After serving two terms in the Maine Senate and then being the Republican nominee against Angus King in 2018, Brakey announced his campaign in September.

Three weeks later, Crafts announced his candidacy with the support of LePage, a close ally of Trump. Crafts spent four terms in the Maine House of Representatives and owns a small chain of self-storage locations. His donors are mainly Maine business owners but donors from the most recent fundraising quarter have not been disclosed yet.

The super PAC spending against Brakey, the American Policy Fund, incorporated recently, and as a result does not have to disclose its donors until after the election. So far, it has spent over $340,000 against Brakey, hitting him on past opposition to Trump while tying him to the “Squad” of four progressive congresswomen. The super PAC’s treasurer, Cabell Hobbs, has close ties to the Republican establishment. He was the treasurer for Bolton’s super PAC, which attracted controversy for allegedly illegal collaboration with Cambridge Analytica in the 2014 North Carolina Senate race, as well as for several other Republican super PACs. He currently serves as treasurer for the Republican State Leadership Committee. A spokesperson for Bolton said Trump’s former national security adviser is not involved with the PAC. The American Policy Fund did not respond to a request for comment.

Another super PAC, the Club for Growth Action, has endorsed Brakey, and the group and its affiliates have spent over $800,000 supporting the candidate. The largest donors to Club for Growth Action are Richard Uihlein of the Uline shipping company and Jeff Yass of the Susquehanna International Group; the largest donor to the Protect Freedom PAC, also spending in support of Brakey, is also Yass. The Club for Growth typically adopts a militant libertarian posture in Republican primaries. Since the election of Rand Paul, the group has grown more comfortable with heterodox foreign policy views, after spending heavily to defeat anti-war moderate Wayne Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican, in his primary in 2008.

Eaton River Strategies, which is working with the Crafts campaign, is a firm owned by Kathie Summers-Grice, a George W. Bush Department of Labor official. Summers-Grice is a registered foreign agent for Saudi Arabia, and receives $10,000 per month as a subcontractor for the Saudi government. Summers-Grice’s firm has received over $33,000 from the Crafts campaign for consulting and direct mail services. “The Federal Election Commission prohibits foreign nationals and governments from making contributions in U.S. elections, so Saudi Arabia can’t actually pay for Grice’s work to defeat Brakey,” said Freeman. “But, at the very least, $10,000 per month gives Grice ample reason to want to defeat someone critical of the folks writing her those checks.”

Summers-Grice told The Intercept that that while her company is working with the Crafts campaign, she has no involvement “and doesn’t even live in the 2nd district.” The Crafts campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

“This is a clear alignment between the Saudi lobbying complex and a politician’s campaign that is supportive of and defending American militarism abroad,” said Eli Clifton, the research director of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “Militarism which has certainly been beneficial to Saudi Arabia, but not beneficial to taxpayers or the economy outside of the military industrial complex.”

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