LEWISTON, Maine — A Democratic congressional candidate’s visit to Lewiston’s iconic political hotspot and late stumping in the city by a surrogate for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton highlighted the elevated role Maine’s 2nd District plays in this year’s national election calculus.
But for Joseph and Anne Rafferty of Turner, who were sitting in a corner booth at Simones’ Hot Dog Stand, the classic downtown campaign stop co-owned with their daughter, the Democrats’ late courtship proved unconvincing. They hope that Republican nominee Donald Trump will be elected Tuesday.
“He’s unique. He’s exciting. We’ve had 30 years of Hillary,” said Anne Rafferty of the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state. “We’ve had enough of the Clintons. It’s time for a change.”
Many in Maine’s toss-up 2nd District feel that way, and it’ll be one of the most heavily watched battleground areas in the nation on Tuesday in a Democratic state that hasn’t given any of its four Electoral College votes to a Republican since 1988.
Clinton held a statewide polling lead in October, and FiveThirtyEight gave her a 79 percent chance of winning three statewide electors. But as of 5 p.m. Monday, Trump had become a 51 percent bet in the more rural and conservative 2nd District, where his strong September polling lead shrunk in October.
The New York City billionaire visited Maine five times in the campaign, capping the courtship with an October rally at a Christian school in Lisbon, which borders Lewiston, Maine’s second-largest city.
The city is a southern 2nd District stronghold with a rich Democratic history. John F. Kennedy appeared in the downtown City Park on the Sunday before Election Day in his successful 1960 presidential campaign.
But Lewiston has had a recent conservative streak. Trump endorser Gov. Paul LePage was born in Lewiston, winning it in his 2010 and 2014 elections. U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin lost it in 2014 but became the first Republican to win the 2nd District in 20 years. He’s facing a nationally targeted rematch against Democrat Emily Cain, who campaigned at Simones’ on Monday.
The backdrop to this rise is an influx of African immigrants, most of them from Somalia. More than 7,000 have come to the Lewiston area since 2000.
At times, the sharp demographic change caused political tension: In 2002, then-Mayor Larry Raymond wrote a letter discouraging further immigration because of a strain on city resources, and 10 years later, Mayor Robert Macdonald got national attention for telling immigrants in a BBC documentary to “leave your culture at the door.”
Macdonald backed Trump in late 2015. He won a third term last December during the nominee’s political rise. Trump has called for “extreme vetting” for Muslim immigrants. He invoked Maine’s Somali population at an August rally in Portland alongside a riff on crimes committed by immigrants, even though Lewiston’s crime rate fell by 23 percent between 2005 and 2014.
Also central to Trump’s push in Maine is his party-bucking stance against free trade agreements that have been blamed for domestic manufacturing job losses. National Republicans largely back such agreements, but opposition to them is bipartisan here, with the Maine House of Representatives unanimously passing a resolution against the Trans-Pacific Partnership earlier this year.
Both Trump and Clinton oppose it, but Clinton made statements in support of it during her stint as secretary of state, and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, backed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which a 2003 study for the Maine Legislature said could have cost the state hundreds of jobs.
Peter Navarro, a University of California economist who serves as a top policy adviser to Trump, said Trump “revolutionized the Republican Party” with his trade stance standing in contrast to his primary opponents and Clinton’s record.
“So, this is Maine’s time,” Navarro said. “This is the chance to elect Trump and be heard on this issue, and I’ll tell you what — those electoral votes are going to matter on Election Day.”
But former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who ran against Clinton in the Democratic primary and was on a campaign swing for her from Portland to Bangor via Lewiston on Monday, called Trump a “hypocritical bottom-feeder” who “cries crocodile tears in front of closed factories” while manufacturing many of his products overseas.
“Hillary Clinton believes in building an economy that works for everybody, where people can actually get ahead when they work hard,” O’Malley said.
The parties were hard at work across Maine on Monday: The Maine Democratic Party said 1,500 volunteers are at work in the 2nd District, with 100 out of the Lewiston office. In the afternoon at the Maine Republican Party’s regional office in Auburn, 15 people worked the phones.
At Simones’ for lunch, Terry Klitsch of Lewiston said she’ll vote for Clinton because Trump has “stomped on a lot of little people, and I’m a little person.” Stan Staples of Lewiston also is with Clinton, because “she knows what she’s doing” and Trump wants to “put people down and fight.”
But Marc Oshansky of Auburn was in the restaurant wearing Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” hat, citing the controversy over Clinton’s email practices as secretary of state. It reached another climax on Sunday with the FBI standing by a July decision not to recommend charges.
“I have a hard time overlooking what she’s done, and I just don’t know how well she’ll do,” Oshansky said.
On Monday, an African immigrant was walking in the downtown park now named for Kennedy. He said doesn’t have a home here yet, but he is staying in Auburn and can’t vote. If he could, he said he’d back Clinton.
“Hillary wants immigrants,” he said in French, the language of the immigrants who changed Lewiston in the 1800s. “But Trump, he does not need immigration.”
Then, he left without giving his name to meet people on Bates Street wearing a Maine wardrobe staple: A blue backpack from L.L. Bean.