BANGOR, Maine — In a pitch to working-class voters in Maine, Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump said he’d attempt to pull the United States from trade deals, including one that “drained businesses out of Maine.”
It was a clear sign that Trump will use trade as a key wedge issue in his campaign against Democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton, especially in working-class states that lean Democratic and have struggled with manufacturing job losses, like Maine.
“We’re going to bring back our jobs. We’re going to bring back our wealth. We’re going to bring back our money,” he said Wednesday at a rally at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. “We’re going to bring back our pride. We’re going to make America great again.”
Trump’s Bangor trip can be read as an attempt at a historic electoral bank shot: Maine has voted for Democrats in every presidential election since 1992, and although it’s one of two states to allocate Electoral College votes by congressional district, Maine’s two districts have never split.
But the Republican outsider defied political convention to clinch enough delegates to win his party’s nomination, and early signs are that he could do it in Maine, particularly in the more conservative and rural 2nd Congressional District, where Bangor is the second-biggest city.
A Portland Press Herald poll released Sunday showed Clinton with 42 percent support statewide to Trump’s 36 percent. But it was closer in the 2nd District, where one Electoral College vote is up for grabs and Trump had 30 percent support to Clinton’s 28 percent. Trump announced his Bangor trip on Monday.
His party-bucking stances on trade could be a calling card in Maine, which has been wracked by five major mill closures in just over three years. He has threatened to unravel trade deals blamed for manufacturing job losses here and in blue-collar areas across the country.
That includes the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, which may have cost Maine hundreds of manufacturing jobs, according to a 2003 study for the Maine Legislature.
Nationally, Republicans largely back free trade deals, but opposition to them is bipartisan here: Earlier this year, the Maine House of Representatives unanimously passed a symbolic resolution against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal with Pacific rim nations negotiated by President Barack Obama’s administration.
Trump has hammered those deals, saying in a Tuesday speech in Pennsylvania that the North American Free Trade Agreement is a “continuing rape of our country.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which typically supports Republicans, responded to that by saying “good-paying jobs and sustained economic growth relies on an outward-facing U.S. economy, not inward isolation.”
The Republican escalated that battle on Wednesday, calling the chamber “totally controlled by special interests” who “don’t care about you” and linked Clinton to the deal, as it was approved during the administration of Bill Clinton, the Democrat’s husband.
In Bangor, Trump said “stupid people” have been negotiating deals for the U.S. and promised to try to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he said “drained businesses from Maine.”
If they didn’t agree, he said he’d pull the country from the deal. He also said he’d pull the U.S. out of the Pacific deal, which hasn’t yet been approved by Congress.
“I’m going to appoint the toughest and smartest trade negotiators to fight on behalf of the American interests and the American people,” Trump said.
Hillary Clinton also has opposed the Pacific deal, but it has been a difficult issue for her because she made statements supporting it as Obama’s secretary of state. Her main primary rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has often criticized her on trade.
But Clinton allies have pushed back, painting Trump as an out-of-touch hypocrite, invoking his offshored clothing line and flip-flops on various issues, including abortion, debt and taxes.
At a news conference alongside other Democrats outside the Bangor arena, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said his “ties are made in China, suits in Mexico and furniture in Turkey.”
“Mr. Trump has nothing in common with the working men and women of Maine, and he will do nothing to help them,” she said.
Maine seems to be a piece of Trump’s bid to flip an electoral map that now looks friendly to Clinton, who is leading him nationally by more than six percentage points, according to averages from RealClearPolitics. On Wednesday, political forecasting site FiveThirtyEight gave her a 79 percent chance of winning in November.
Trump is struggling to unite Republicans nationally. In Maine, he has support from Gov. Paul LePage, who endorsed him in February, coordinated his delegate-wrangling effort at the state Republican convention in April and introduced him on Wednesday.
However, he hasn’t won over other big-name Republicans here. Neither U.S. Sen. Susan Collins nor U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of the 2nd District have endorsed him, though Poliquin has praised his trade stance and status as a “job creator” and predicted a Trump win in a private meeting in May.
Collins was in Washington for votes on Wednesday, and Poliquin was at a previously scheduled business stop in Lewiston, making the rally an event for Maine’s Trump hoi polloi.
Cheryl Cyr of Old Town said she is registered as an independent but is an enthusiastic Trump supporter. She said she and her husband have been forced to finance their children’s education with their retirement savings, which she blames on establishment politicians.
“I’m proud that someone is finally telling the hidden issues out loud,” she said. “I think Donald Trump finally has said, ‘This is how I see it,’ and I think that’s how a lot of people see it. He’s not 100 percent wonderful, but it’s about time someone said what people who are hard-working earners feel.”
BDN writers Nick McCrea and Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.