After Tuesday’s primaries, the general election in November will pit rising progressive Emily Cain against arch-conservative Bruce Poliquin in the race to replace U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud in Congress. It will be a race to watch.
The 2nd District, encompassing Lewiston, much of the Waterville area, Bangor and points east, west and north, has traditionally leaned toward moderates with local appeal. It elected Blue Dog Democrat Michaud, Bangor native Democrat John Baldacci, moderate Republicans Olympia Snowe and William Cohen, decorated military veteran and Democrat William Hathaway, and Maine’s first woman in Congress, moderate Republican Margaret Chase Smith.
Neither candidate emerging from Tuesday’s primary fully fits the centrist profile. Poliquin, an investor and millionaire, who lived in Georgetown until he moved to Oakland to run for the 2nd District, has positioned himself as the true conservative unwilling to bend on tea party philosophy. He fought in this primary against moderate Kevin Raye as the anti-abortion, anti-Affordable Care Act, anti-compromise candidate — positioning himself so far to the right it’s hard to see how he could ever creep toward the middle. But if he manages to move toward the center, he could risk losing votes to independent Blaine Richardson, who is popular in the Republican Party’s libertarian wing.
Cain is more likely to comfortably claim the center. During the primary, unlike her opponent Troy Jackson, she spoke often about the need for Democrats and Republicans to work together, something she has done both in the minority and majority at the Maine Legislature. But she also spoke out about a woman’s right to choose, and her support for same-sex marriage and raising the minimum wage. While the message played well with primary voters — handing her a victory with more than 70 percent of the vote — it may not resonate as well in the general election.
Poliquin and Cain have proven they can solidify their party support. But the plurality of 2nd District voters — 37.4 percent — are not enrolled in a party; 28.7 percent are registered as Republicans and 30 percent as Democrats. Poliquin and Cain’s challenge is to appeal to the moderates. Their policy positions couldn’t be further apart, so connecting personally will matter a great deal. Who will voters trust the most? Which candidate do they believe is as honest, pragmatic and hard-working as they are? Who will they identify with?
As the general election progresses, pay attention to how the candidates define the challenges and opportunities of the 2nd District. Look for integrity, vision and the ability to tackle problems successfully. Whoever goes to Congress should reflect accurately this diverse district that geographically makes up most of Maine. Ultimately, the person who wins will be positioned well to reach for even higher office — likely governor or U.S. Senate — following in the footsteps of others who have held the seat.
But first they have to prove themselves to the more than 80 percent of voters who didn’t participate in the primary. The general election will test the influence of the middle.