FORT KENT, Maine — In rural northern Maine, October is usually dominated by the potato harvest, but 2016 has created a new reality for the people scratching out livelihoods in the 2nd Congressional District: Life in a national political battleground.
The people here have heard and seen themselves defined in myriad ways: Politically conservative. Blue collar. Rural. Independent. Late-night television host Samantha Bee described them as inhabitants of “the country’s unheated crawlspace.”
They’ve been told that voters in the 2nd District could make history this year by splitting with southern Maine in the presidential election. For the first time ever, they could divide Maine’s four electoral votes between two major-party candidates, and a few predictive scenarios have pegged the district as the potential tiebreaker in an Electoral College stalemate.
Adding to the district’s political import is the fact that a rematch between incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Democratic challenger Emily Cain could affect the balance of power in Congress.
Presidential campaigns have devoted unprecedented resources to courting voters in the 2nd District, where polls show Republican nominee Donald Trump leading Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump will make his second visit to the district Saturday, when he holds a 3 p.m. rally at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Clinton has sent a stream of surrogates, including her daughter Chelsea on Thursday.
Away from the political arena, 2nd District voters express dire concerns about the country’s direction but harbor doubts that either candidate can correct national problems that make their lives more difficult. They see signs of economic decay in northern Maine’s moribund manufacturing sector and bemoan trade imbalances that make them worry that they will be the ones to call it quits on family farms and ways of life that have sustained the region for generations.
With increasing focus on each candidate’s purported character flaws, there’s a sense of resignation and detachment. Campaign workers badger them with sales pitches that emphasize the importance of each vote in this election, but many 2nd District voters wonder whether the political system and who sits in the White House have become irrelevant to their daily lives.
Does it really matter?
The typical autumnal quiet has been replaced by phones ringing throughout the evenings with voices from afar — a lot of people say they just don’t answer when they don’t recognize the number — and their mailboxes are full with variations of the same message: Their votes are crucial to the future of our country.
With the paper mills faltering and the potato farms having trouble finding buyers for their product, many view the presidential campaign with a streak of melancholy and an internal question: Does it really matter who the president is?
James Fortin was born in Fort Kent but moved to Connecticut in 1957 for a career as a tradesman. He retired to his hometown a decade ago, returning to find empty storefronts, shuttered mills and a marked increase in economic suffering.
“No matter who we send to Washington, Aroostook County is not going to get any better than when I left in 1957,” he said at a moose-tagging station in Fort Kent, at the S.W. Collins lumberyard. “At the local level, we understand the problems. We just don’t have enough assets and resources to boost the area.”
For the uninitiated, trucks lumbering by every few minutes with seemingly impossible amounts of potatoes and train cars packed with pulpwood to be shipped to mills in Canada look like the makings of a hearty economy, but the people here know that’s not the case. The potato fields are all owned by a handful of corporations, the border crossing in Houlton is busy with spuds coming in from Canada and the price paid for timber keeps falling. Canadian industries enjoy government subsidies that just don’t exist in Maine.
It’s a truth that’s as enduring as the rolling hills on Routes 1 and 161 between Houlton and Fort Kent, where every now and then drivers rise just high enough to see the world around them for hundreds of miles in every direction. For the most part, though, they see their only their local reality: thousands of acres of potato fields and on some of the ridges lines of wind turbines.
To some, however, the identity of the next president matters a lot. Julie Guglielmo is a young mother from Frenchville who has five children, age 7 and younger. She was at the Fort Kent McDonald’s with one of them this week for a quick breakfast. The presidential litmus test for her centers on abortion, which she opposes.
“That’s why I’m not voting for [Hillary] Clinton, but the other option is a misogynistic pig,” she said. “I just don’t support politicians who support abortion.”
She has other reasons to care who becomes president: She wants religious freedom, the ability to parent her children how she wants, the flexibility to home-school them, the power to decide whether they’re vaccinated and what they’ll be taught in their lessons.
“Who the president is definitely makes a difference in our everyday lives,” she said. “America could look very different four years from now. It’s not about who you’d rather have a drink with but rather who you want to run your country.”
‘It’s just a big circus’
Down the road a piece in Presque Isle, retired municipal employee James Kaiser, a Trump supporter, said the president matters on taxes and picking U.S. Supreme Court justices. There’s not been enough focus on those issues in a campaign that Kaiser and numerous others told the Bangor Daily News is “disgusting.” While some are repulsed by Trump’s lewd comments or Clinton’s handling of emails while she was secretary of state, Kaiser said the media and in turn voters are missing the point.
“If Trump is going to lose, let him lose fair,” he said. “Focus on the issues.”
Adam Wright, a farm worker in Presque Isle, is originally from Alabama, where he said Republicans “walk on a high horse” with few challenges from Democrats. He said he worries about Trump igniting an unnecessary war and he doesn’t know what to think of Clinton and all her “secrets.”
“It’s just a big circus,” he said. “I won’t vote for those two. I’d almost move to another country if I knew of one better.”
Marion Gilman, retired from the University of Maine at Presque Isle, has spent her life farther south in Mars Hill. She gestures to the Bigrock Ski Area and its slopes, where a string of wind turbines can now be seen from downtown, as the fondest memory of her childhood. Gilman is active in the local Republican committee and has sent a donation to Trump. But on Tuesday, she was deeply disturbed by the chasm that had grown between Trump and Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
“It’s just going to split the party,” she said. “I’ve tried to stand behind Trump but it’s been difficult. … I will be a good Republican and vote for my party’s nominee.”
Why vote Republican? For Gilman it’s about preserving the way she’s always lived her life.
“Up here, we believe in everyone working and in paying our own way and not getting anything for free,” she said.
In the shadow of shuttered mills
In Millinocket, where the paper mills are closed but the tourism industry has new hope after Democratic President Barack Obama designated a new national monument nearby, the owner of the downtown Blue Ox Saloon, Tom St. John, is trying to hold on for another couple of years, when he figures his tables will fill with an influx of park visitors. He’s voting for Trump, basically because he thinks the billionaire businessman deserves a chance to fulfill his “make America great again” motto.
“If he stumbles, it doesn’t matter. He’ll be gone in four years,” St. John said. “Even if he doesn’t win, we need him to be there like he is to question authority and to question where all the money is going.”
Lincoln is another town struck by a mill closure. Like elsewhere, it’s a Republican-leaning town but there are Democrats, such as Jim Deacon. He said the memory of Bill Clinton balancing the federal budget gives him hope for Hillary. He dismisses controversies about her handling of emails while she was secretary of state.
“The email thing is a political joke. Everyone knows that,” Deacon said. “She hasn’t done anything differently than any other secretary of state.”
Ron Soucy in Dover-Foxcroft agreed that the emails and furor around the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, are nothing more than campaign-season constructs.
“A lot of people are just scared stiff of Trump,” Soucy said. “He’s just too radical. Even though you’re angry, you’ve got to keep your cool. You’ve got to use diplomacy, and he doesn’t have that ability. I just don’t think he’s emotionally ready to be president.”
Joel Parker of Fairfield is a personal care worker in Skowhegan. He said he’s undecided who he’ll vote for but that his thoughts swirl around what this campaign is saying to the rest of the world.
“It all reflects on our country,” he said.
Wanda Collins, a retiree, said Trump disgusts her and Clinton is a liar but that she too worried about America’s place in the world.
“I’m sure we’re being looked at by other nations as weaker,” she said. “I can’t figure out who to vote for.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the monetary exchange between the Canadian and American dollars.