LINCOLN, Maine — Nothing illuminates the political divide between Maine’s two congressional districts as vividly as Question 3, the referendum that seeks to require background checks for private gun transfers and sales in Maine.
While efforts to legalize recreational use of marijuana and raise the state’s minimum wage have garnered significant attention in Maine’s more progressive 1st Congressional District, Question 3 matters most in the rural, conservative 2nd Congressional District. It’s quietly churning political undercurrents that could affect other races, including Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s re-election bid and Donald Trump’s effort to win the district’s Electoral College vote.
During a Saturday stump speech in Bangor, Trump touted his endorsement by the National Rifle Association, which is funding ads that oppose Question 3. Poliquin, who has said he will vote against Question 3, has also made gun ownership rights a focal point of his campaign in a district known for its hunting culture.
While statewide polls show support for background checks in general, a majority of 2nd District voters interviewed by the Bangor Daily News during the past week expressed distrust if not outright opposition to Question 3. If they are representative of the district’s electorate and Republicans can tap that distrust to sway voters in their direction, it could be enough to determine the outcome of races that polls show to be extremely close.
In the political sign wars, No on 3 has an obvious lead in the 2nd District. On main roads from Rumford in the western foothills to Dover-Foxcroft in central Maine to Fort Kent in The County, No on 3 signs are scattered on village greens, at state road intersections and at the ends of driveways. They easily outnumber the signage for any other campaign or candidate, including Hillary Clinton and Trump. Compared with Yes on 3 signs, there’s no contest.
Counting signs is a crude and unscientific way of gauging elections. But it does offer insight into the level of passion property owners and volunteers have for campaigns.
With many voters just tuning in now, driving by signs offers a constant reminder of the issues on the ballot. The number of signs and where they’re located also are rough indications of where a campaign has been active. Signs on public property, such as at intersections, could more likely be the work of canvassers whereas signs on private property indicate engaged voters.
Talking to people
During a Bangor Daily News reporting project in the 2nd District this week, numerous voters offered unsolicited opinions that defeating Question 3 is a motivating factor in how they will approach other contests on the ballot. Like the signs, these impromptu conversations at bars, on street corners and in front yards were lopsided against background checks.
While some cited Question 3, others discussed their presidential preferences in terms of who would better protect their Second Amendment rights.
“I’m concerned about Question 3 on the ballot,” Kenny Davis of Lincoln said. “I’m afraid Hillary is going to try to take our guns away.”
Chris Johansen of Monticello, a Republican candidate for the House District 145 seat against Democrat Glenn Hines of Hammond and independent Randy Rockwell of Merrill, was buying pizza to share at the GOP campaign office in Presque Isle on Tuesday. He said the sentiment against Question 3 among his sportsmen and gun rights friends runs strong. It is also a common topic when he’s knocking on doors for his campaign.
“For a lot of people, a candidate has to pass that test first,” Johansen said.
Asked why who the president is matters at the local level, James Kaiser of Presque Isle cited gun rights.
“It matters from taxes to the Second Amendment to the Supreme Court,” he said. “The only time we talk about those issues is every four years [during presidential elections].”
In Dover-Foxcroft. Jim Lambert was picking up groceries. He said the fact that the referendum is backed by billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Everytown for Gun Safety organization will backfire on the question’s supporters.
“This is Maine,” he said. “Almost everyone here has a gun.”
National polls have found strong support for universal background checks but it’s much closer in Maine. A January 2016 Yale University poll found 77 percent of Americans favored universal background checks and an August poll by Pew Research Center found 83 percent support for background checks for private and gun show sales. In a September poll conducted by the Portland Press Herald found that statewide, 61 percent of likely voters support passage of Question 3. In the 2nd District, 52 percent said they favor its passage.
In 2014, voters in the 2nd District elected Poliquin by a more than 5 percentage point margin over Democratic challenger Emily Cain and despite the fact that a hard conservative, independent Blaine Richardson, received 11 percent of the vote. That suggests that this year’s two-way race between Cain and Poliquin tilts even more heavily toward the incumbent. Richardson, however, was a relative unknown who some political experts say probably attracted support from voters unhappy with the major-party candidates who weren’t fully familiar with Richardson’s stances.
Cain’s 2014 loss can be attributed to a number of factors, probably chief of which was Poliquin’s more effective campaign. But some political historians suspect that a referendum to restrict bear hunting methods drew an uptick in conservative hunters and sportsmen to the polls. One analysis showed the bear hunting referendum helped re-elect Gov. Paul LePage with a record number of votes for any governor in Maine history and increased turnout in some municipalities by double-digit percentages.
Paul Mills, a Maine political historian from Farmington, said he believes Question 3 will help Republicans.
“The gun control referendum may be good news for Republicans in that the anti-gun control NRA voters are more energized in the northern half of the state than the gun control activists are,” he said. “That will encourage turnout, particularly in the rural areas of the state.”
The impact of Question 3 after the election will be hard to gauge and if Trump wins or loses there are certainly many factors at play, including the candidates themselves. Likewise for Poliquin, who has been favored in the polls and has the advantage of incumbency. Those calculations aside, there is no doubt that Question 3 has conservative voters fired up and headed to the polls.
Correction: A previous version of this report misstated Rep. Bruce Poliquin's position on Question 3. He has stated he opposed the referendum.