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Trump-backed candidate Austin Theriault wins primary in Maine district rocked by mass shooting

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LEWISTON, Maine (蘑菇影院) 鈥 Republican state lawmaker Austin Theriault, endorsed by former President Donald Trump, has won the chance to try to unseat one of the most conservative Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives in a Maine district rocked by a mass shooting last year.

Theriault, of Fort Kent, defeated fellow Maine House member Mike Soboleski, of Phillips, who is also a supporter of Trump.

Theriault will face three-term incumbent Democratic Rep. Jared Golden in Maine鈥檚 2nd Congressional District, which has handed an electoral vote to Trump in the last two elections. The district was also the site of a mass shooting that killed 18 in Lewiston in October.

Theriault said Tuesday that his win was 鈥渁 victory for the working people here in Maine.鈥 A spokesperson for the Golden campaign said the campaign was 鈥済lad for this outcome鈥 and the upcoming contest 鈥渋s the race we wanted.鈥

Theriault and Soboleski both vowed to be a stronger protector of the Second Amendment than Golden in the months since the Lewiston shooting, which motivated Maine Democrats to approve a battery of new gun control laws. Golden, who has also long fashioned himself as a protector of gun rights, came out in support of an assault weapons ban after the Lewiston shooting but has said he would not have voted for changes such as expanding background checks and creating penalties for illegal gun sales.

Economic development, inflation and immigration have also factored into the primary campaign, but gun control is clearly a major factor on voters鈥 minds, said Mark Brewer, a political scientist with the University of Maine.

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The election also has a chance to shake up the power structure of Congress. Republicans have a slim five-seat edge in the U.S. House, and the Maine election is one of a handful that could change that balance, Brewer said.

鈥淭his is certainly shaping up as one of the top 10 House races in the country, if not the top five,鈥 Brewer said. 鈥淚t鈥檚 an incredibly evenly divided district, and there are increasingly few of those.鈥

The 2nd Congressional District is far more rural and geographically much larger than Maine鈥檚 other district, which leans more heavily Democratic and is based around Portland. The 2nd District is home to many of Maine鈥檚 traditional industries, such as papermaking and lobster fishing.

Theriault is a former NASCAR driver who had a major fundraising advantage over Soboleski in the race. Soboleski, however, picked up endorsements from some other Republican state lawmakers.

Both painted themselves as more in tune with the working people of the district. Theriault said on the gun issue 鈥渁nd many others, Jared Golden is not representing the people of the district.鈥 Soboleski said Golden is 鈥渇ocused on moving up the political ladder.鈥

Golden, a Marine veteran of two wars, has characterized his approach to gun control and other issues as pragmatic and right for Maine.

鈥淚n Maine, as elsewhere, the government, the courts and the people must seek a balance between the individual right and the common good,鈥 he said.

Whittle is an Associated Press reporter based in Portland, Maine. He focuses on the environment and oceans.