The former NASCAR driver who could replace Maine’s most legendary lawmaker

October 28, 2022

by David Marino Jr. October 27, 2022 Updated October 28, 2022

FORT KENT, Maine — Here in the St. John Valley, Austin Theriault is known more for NASCAR racing than his politics. That may soon change.

Theriault, a Republican from Fort Kent, is running in a seat long occupied by former Maine House Speaker John Martin, D-Eagle Lake. Martin is one of the most powerful lawmakers in state history, first elected at age 23 in 1964 — 30 years before Theriault was born.

The 28-year-old political newcomer has campaigned ably so far. He raised more money than all but one other House candidate through mid-September. His Democratic opponent, Dana Marie Appleby of Saint John Plantation, has relatively little as a publicly financed candidate. Her party has spent no outside money to help her, and Martin, 81, has stayed out of the race.

Theriault’s political aspirations are not new: He served as student council president and council representative to the school board at Fort Kent’s high school. He considered studying political science in college, but his burgeoning racing career brought him new opportunities.

He started off on local tracks as a teenager and reached the NASCAR Cup Series, the highest level of American racing, in 2019. After stopping due to injury, he has transitioned into a career working as a mentor to other drivers. He said he was initially reluctant to get involved in politics, but did so partly because he believed he could help forge compromise in Augusta.

Theriault said he would best be described as a moderate conservative, and his ads portray him as someone who will seek consensus. He has Democrats in his family and has received support from some on the campaign trail, he said.

“I’ve always had the drive to be a part of this community as best as I possibly could,” Theriault said. “This seems like another opportunity to try to help the area.”

Democrats have historically dominated the district, a stronghold of Acadian culture. They still have a large party registration edge on Republicans there, but that does not accurately reflect the regional politics. Out of the 13 municipalities in the sprawling district, only Wallagrass, the town of 500 between Eagle Lake and Fort Kent, voted for President Joe Biden in 2020.

Like much of rural Maine, the district has seen significant population loss in recent years. The population in 2020 was 87 percent of its 1990 population and 71 percent of its 1960 population.

Addressing inflation and increased energy costs are an important part of his campaign and among the topics that Theriault hears about most on the trail. Appleby also has made oil prices part of her campaign, saying the state should expand the income thresholds for heat and weatherization assistance programs and devote more money to them.

Over the summer, the abortion issue began to also be a top one in 2022 campaigns, leading to a Democratic bump in polls nationally that has receded in recent months while concerns grow about the economy grow during a midterm election for an unpopular Biden.

Even as he runs to represent a heavily Catholic area of the state, Theriault said he supports keeping Maine’s permissive abortion policies in the books. He is opposed to using taxpayer funding for abortions, according to a Christian Civic League of Maine questionnaire.

Appleby, who called herself an unabashed supporter of abortion rights, had the opposite answer. She recalled knocking on the door of a young mother who said she would vote for her despite being a Republican because of the threat to reproductive rights.

This House race has not been a battleground for Maine’s political parties, although it overlaps with the record-smashing race between Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and Rep. Sue Bernard, R-Caribou, which may exceed $1 million in outside spending alone.

Theriault raised $31,000 as of Sept. 20. Appleby, who had only about $6,300 to match it, conceded that she did worry about the money being spent by her opponent. He has spent nearly $8,000 alone on printed materials like signs, while she has spent around $1,500.

In the face of being outspent, Appleby has focused on door-to-door campaigning in the sprawling district, making stops across Fort Kent, Allagash, St. Francis and Masardis, among other places. She’s also attending several Halloween events in the coming days.

Martin, nicknamed the “Earl of Eagle Lake” for his influential and ruthless tenure as speaker, has made no endorsement and did not respond to requests for comment. Appleby said replacing him would be “huge shoes to fill.” Theriault described new blood as a “natural evolution” of any political office, noting he would have the capacity to learn and listen.

“I believe I bring a different outside perspective that somebody that’s been there a long time may not have,” Theriault said. “In a perfect world, you put two and two together, and you have a very powerful combination.”