LEWISTON, Maine — Clint Linscott is a contradiction: His auto body shop in East Millinocket features signs for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic 2nd Congressional District candidate Emily Cain.
In 2014, he voted for Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin over Cain. But the congressman has lost him after refusing to say if he’ll vote for Trump, his maneuvering against the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and flipping to vote against a LGBT-rights provision.
“Granted, I probably drive her crazy with some of my views and she drives me crazy with hers,” he said. “But she’s willing to talk, and she’s very well-educated, and she’s ready to come somewhere toward the middle.”
Linscott is probably an outlier in Cain’s camp, but he embodies her challenge, the success of which hinges on persuading voters that enough has changed to oust Poliquin after one term in a district where Trump leads Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Although top Democrats see positive change in her campaign, Cain is an underdog. Poliquin beat her by five percentage points in 2014, a gap that looks wider when you consider that independent conservative Blaine Richardson got nearly 11 percent of votes.
September polls from the Portland Press Herald and The Boston Globe showed Poliquin ahead this time around. He outraised her by $1 million as of June, but she has benefited from $826,000 more in outside spending as of week’s end.
As Poliquin’s campaign works to highlight instances in which he bucked Republican leadership, Cain is looking to sow doubts while countering with her 10-year record as a legislator from Orono to pitch voters that she’s better equipped to represent their interests in a gridlocked Congress.
In Augusta, she had a reputation as a progressive, yet genial dealmaker, especially during her stint leading minority House Democrats after Gov. Paul LePage’s 2010 election, when she helped negotiate a budget that contained the largest income tax cut in Maine history.
Campaigning with her in Lewiston on Sept. 22, former state Sen. Margaret Craven touted Cain’s work on 24 budgets. Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell called Cain “unusual” in her ability to make deals.
A record to challenge
But Cain’s attacks on Poliquin have gotten sharper since 2014. She and national Democrats are running ads hammering the former New York City investment manager’s “Wall Street” background.
He serves on the House Financial Services Committee, and the industry he helps regulate has given him more $750,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Cain sees a party-line voting record to match, including his vote for a Republican budget in 2015 that would turn Medicare into a voucher system for new enrollees.
“We see him late to lead, and we see him, every time, choose what’s best for Wall Street over what’s best for people in Maine,” she said in an interview.
Cain said “the contrast in record is now one we can highlight more directly” in this campaign because Poliquin didn’t have one in 2014, only theretofore serving in public office as Maine’s state treasurer.
But this cuts both ways. Poliquin is a conservative Republican, but he has made party-bucking moves that could be seen as a systematic attempt to blunt Cain’s lines of attack.
Poliquin said free trade was “good” in a 2014 debate, even though opposition to trade agreements framed as hastening the decline of Maine manufacturing is so ingrained in state politics that the Maine House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership earlier this year. He came out against the deal in April, joining Cain.
After Cain held town hall events with the progressive National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in Bangor, Poliquin countered with a September event of his own highlighting his push for Social Security reform that could increase benefits for Maine retirees.
And after Wells Fargo was fined $185 million in September for opening unauthorized accounts in customers’ names, Cain looked to link Poliquin to the issue.
Her campaign issued a news release hitting Poliquin for taking $2,000 from the bank’s political action committee and voting for a 2015 bill that the White House said would weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose director Poliquin grilled that year.
But on Thursday, Poliquin was in committee hammering Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf, saying the company had a pattern of “ripping off your customers, getting caught, paying a fine and doing the damn thing all over again.”
On many of these issues, Cain said Poliquin was “late to lead.” After the Wells Fargo hearing, she issued a statement saying he’s “on the side of the banks until there’s a camera on him.”
But his final actions provide hurdles for her.
Lance Dutson, a Republican strategist who supports Poliquin, said he “really only has to play these issues to a tie” — and is — while Cain must find a way to gain ground.
“She’s got to create a different dynamic in that race, and I don’t think she’s doing it,” Dutson said.
Room for improvement
Cain admitted that her 2014 campaign was flawed, saying she “played it too safe” at times, “took a lot of advice” from national Democrats and didn’t effectively respond to “untrue and unfair attacks.”
Her campaign was, at times, gawky. For example, Poliquin got mileage out of a false claim that Cain had never had a full-time job, but the claim originated from a Cain campaign representative who gave an inaccurate reply to a reporter’s question on her work history.
Former Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree, a Democrat who served with Cain and is the daughter of Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District, praised Cain’s 2016 television ads, which have used Maine loggers and campers to amplify her attacks on Poliquin compared to the more “generic” ads two years ago.
“I think it’s a different dynamic for him, and she’s just more experienced and is running a better campaign,” Pingree said.
And former Maine Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat who represented the 2nd District from 1995 to 2003, said he sees a campaign that has been “a lot more about her and her background and her family and the issues that she cares about,” showing that she “got her sea legs and she knows what she needs to do” to win.
But Dutson still sees a generic Democratic campaign, saying, “The inspirational story of why we need to elevate Emily Cain to Congress just hasn’t been told.”
Poliquin was swept into office in a year dominated by Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election race. The 2nd District will loom larger in 2016, but Mainers are still learning about both candidates, with the Press Herald poll finding 15 percent of 2nd District voters still undecided.
But the congressman may not have a lock on his voters. Ed Keough of Auburn, who was eating at Simones’ Hot Dog Stand in Lewiston when Cain and Mitchell swung through, said he usually votes for Republicans and voted for Poliquin in 2014, but he is now undecided and could switch if convinced Cain would be fiscally conservative.
“It’s possible,” Keough said. “I’m definitely not a hard party-line-toeing person.”