As the three Democrats seeking their party’s nomination in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District approach the sprint to the primary finish line, those who’ve come before them are incredulous but hopeful that the nominee will be the first in a century capable of unseating an incumbent.
Voters will decide between Assistant Maine House Majority Leader Jared Golden of Lewiston, Hampden conservationist Lucas St. Clair or Islesboro bookseller and former selectman Craig Olson in the June 12 Democratic primary. The winner will attempt to unseat two-term Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who in 2014 became the first Republican in two decades to win the seat. His re-election in 2016, when 2nd District voters for the first time in the 21st century gave an electoral vote to a Republican — Donald Trump — cemented Poliquin’s hold on the seat.
But Democrats who previously represented the 2nd District see vulnerabilities in the Republican Party’s grip this election cycle. In the fiercely libertarian district historically willing to throw its weight behind individual candidates rather than political parties, the two Democrats who most recently held the seat offer this advice: Pound the pavement for all constituents, resist partisan politics and have a clear plan for Maine’s future.
In terms of likelihood for momentous change in the 2nd District, “I think this is going to be the year more than any other,” said John Baldacci, a Democrat who represented the 2nd District from 1995 to 2003 and was Maine’s governor from 2003 to 2011.
“People are looking to put a check and balance on the Trump administration,” and by extension, the Republican Party, which could work in favor of the Democratic nominee, Baldacci said.
The Trump factor
In many ways, the 2nd District vote is a referendum on Trump.
“He’s the head Republican who’s not on the ticket but is certainly on the minds of everyone,” University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer said.
Harnessing voters’ dissatisfaction for Trump without distancing oneself too far from the issues that matter to constituents in the 2nd District could be a promising strategy in the Democratic primary, he said.
UMaine Associate Political Science Professor Rob Glover agreed. “To say where you stand in relation to this president, that could be used as a tool to potentially energize Democrats … and capturing independents,” Glover said. “Calling Poliquin to account for degeneration of discourse at the state and national level will be key. Poliquin has not really, at any point, forcefully stood up to it.”
Democrats might find success “if they can make that a liability in his campaign,” he said.
Appeal to rural voters
Maine’s 2nd District is the largest district east of the Mississippi River, and it’s dominated by rural voters, many of whom have deep roots in the state’s enduring — but struggling — industries, such as logging, farming, fishing and papermaking. They’re a no-nonsense bunch, Baldacci said.
“I think if you focus on the meat-and-potato issues of the 2nd District — the farmers, the fishermen, the people working in logging and recreation, they’re working hard and they want to know what [their representative] is doing and how they’re doing it,” Baldacci said.
Poliquin’s background is in financial management, and he served as state treasurer for two years. Republican leaders assigned him to the House Financial Services Committee when he first arrived in Washington, D.C.
“I don’t think being on the financial services or banking committee is consequential to potato farmers who are having a hard time with trade in Canada,” Baldacci said.
Accessibility to constituents is also something the Democratic nominee should prioritize.
Democrats have tried to portray Poliquin as a hard guy to pin down, and his critics argue that it affects his ability to keep his finger on the pulse of the issues that matter to his constituents, who historically don’t vote along hard party lines, said Mike Michaud, a six-term Democratic U.S. representative who served in the 2nd District from 2003 to 2015. In 2014, Michaud gave up his seat to run an unsuccessful bid for governor, clearing the way for Poliquin to win it from former state legislator Emily Cain.
“The accessibility is crucial,” Michaud said. “If a Democrat is going to win in November, they’re going to have to get out there and talk to the voters,” he said.
The ideal Democratic candidate for the 2nd District’s libertarian-leaning voters likely bears some resemblance to Michaud, Brewer said. “A kind of moderate within the party, more progressive on economic issues, but more conservative than his Democratic colleagues on many social issues like guns,” he said.
On paper, Poliquin and the 2nd District aren’t a conventional match, Glover added.
“If you presented me with a bio of Poliquin, his background, his work experience, it wouldn’t seem a natural fit for the 2nd District,” Glover said. “The fact that he’s continued to win with continued support might just be a statement of tribalism in American politics.”
In 2014, Poliquin won in a year when Republican Gov. Paul LePage beat Michaud in a surprisingly strong re-election bid. In 2016, Trump dominated the political climate in the district, again providing a top-of-ticket candidate who helped Poliquin’s cause.
But it doesn’t change the fact that “Poliquin has been very effective [as] the bulwark against big government,” Glover said. “He pitches himself in a way that’s really effective and plays to that libertarian streak.”
In 2010, Democrats had a 13,000-voter advantage on Republicans in the 2nd District. But they have ceded lots of ground during the LePage era and that advantage only stood at 204 as of last year’s election.
The Republican representative has been a stalwart Republican in the first two years of his administration, though he evaded an explicit endorsement for Trump in 2016. His political mantra focuses on business-friendly, conservative principles, framed as the best way to serve his constituents and reflect their values. Despite the fact that Maine ranks near the top of states in reliance on federal aid, he continues to decry “big government” and champion a balanced federal budget amendment.
Last year, Poliquin voted for the Trump-led Republican tax cut plan and the repeal of Affordable Care Act, which ultimately failed. In the oldest district in Maine, and one of the oldest districts in the country, the latter could make him vulnerable, according to Baldacci. A Democratic candidate with a plan to bolster access to health care, especially for the district’s aging residents, could have allure for the district’s voters, Baldacci said.
“There are consequences of people being laid off, of people being denied health care,” Baldacci said. Especially in older populations, the Democratic candidate has “to identify those needs.”
Maine’s congressional race is also being targeted from the national level. Upsetting the Republican incumbent factors into Democrats’ strategy to gain control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Expect national money to flow to Poliquin and the candidate Democrats to challenge him in the months leading up to November’s election.
Poliquin, a fundraising machine, has raised almost twice as much as any other candidate in the race. In March, the Congressional Leadership Fund, linked to Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, announced it had opened an office in Poliquin’s district.
This isn’t unexpected, but it also means that even Republicans acknowledge Poliquin is “vulnerable,” Michaud said.
With such a big funding gap, it’ll make the race to the top all the more challenging.
“The bottom line is, it’s not insurmountable,” Glover said. “It’s an uphill battle.”
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