October 22, 2018
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How Maine’s 2nd District went red and why it matters in 2018

Micky Bedell | Robert F. Bukaty
Micky Bedell | Robert F. Bukaty
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (right) and State Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, a candidate for the 2nd District Congressional seat.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Another nationally targeted race is upon Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, the largely rural swath of the state where voters have moved rightward in recent years and Democrats are looking to knock off two-term U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin.

Since the Republican took the seat in 2014, his district has gone from leaning Democratic by party registration to leaning Republican. It went to President Donald Trump in a historic 2016 split of Maine’s electoral votes on the heels of other victories in the area for Gov. Paul LePage and Republicans.

It’s still one of the two dozen or so districts most likely to flip control of the U.S. House of Representatives in November. More than $3.9 million in outside money has flowed into the race with millions more pledged, making it one of the 20 most expensive 2018 races so far by that measure, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Poliquin was leading the Democratic candidate, Assistant Maine House Majority Leader Jared Golden, in the only public poll of the race published last month by The New York Times, though the error margin meant they could have been tied. The race will be decided by ranked-choice voting with two independents whose supporters could break to Golden.

To pull off the upset, Golden will have to recapture voters in ancestral Democratic strongholds who have been increasingly wooed by Republicans — including his home of Lewiston. Some of those are places where Trump seems to have had strong appeal to voters two years ago.

Republicans gained ground on Democrats in eight of the 2nd District’s 11 counties last year in both Democratic and Republican areas. Democrats held a narrow edge over Republicans in the district by registration in 2014, but Republicans had 30 percent of voters to Democrats’ 29.4 percent this June — in a modest shift that cuts diversely by county.

They did that behind gains in all but three counties, including Penobscot and Androscoggin, the two most populous counties fully inside the district. Androscoggin, Aroostook and Oxford leaned Democratic in 2014 by registration. Trump won all three, and Oxford leans Republican.

This wasn’t monolithic. The biggest partisan shifts by percentage were toward Democrats in Hancock and Waldo counties, the only ones in the 2nd District that Trump lost. Both counties leaned Republican in 2014, but they lean Democratic now. Republicans saw their biggest shifts in Aroostook and Somerset counties.

At the local level, Republicans generally picked up voters in the inland part of the district, while Democrats did better along the coast. Those areas are becoming the parties’ bases in the modern era. Democrats historically have dominated around Lewiston and in the St. John Valley, but most communities in those areas have moved toward Republicans since 2014.

Republican shifts dominated those parts of the district and many of the interior areas that they hold already, through Piscataquis, Somerset, Penobscot, southern Aroostook and Washington counties. One exception was the still Republican-leaning area in and around Farmington, where Democrats have gained over the past four years.

In addition to most places along the coast, Democrats gained ground in Bangor and Brewer, the second population center of the district. The nearby communities of Orono and Old Town got more Democratic, but those communities are surrounded by towns that are getting redder.

Poliquin ran ahead of Trump in 2016, but Golden could pick up votes in places where the Democrat ceded them two years ago. While the district was plenty confident in Poliquin and Trump, the congressman ran ahead of the president overall and in most cities and towns in the district. Poliquin is a more mainstream Republican than the president, whom he didn’t endorse and went into contortions to ignore during his re-election run.

But there were three illustrative areas where Trump beat Poliquin. All were in historic manufacturing centers around Rumford, Millinocket and the western part of the St. John Valley. Trump spent much of his campaign promising to bring back manufacturing jobs from overseas on the heels of five major mill closures in the 2nd District during the preceding four years.

This election will test how Republican these areas will remain with Trump off the ballot. Trump and Emily Cain, Poliquin’s Democratic opponent from Orono, won in Auburn and Rumford in 2016 while Cain out-polled Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Lewiston.

While the district’s party shift is against him, Golden could use a Lewiston home base to pad a lead in those areas. If he does, parts of the district sure to favor Poliquin of Oakland may not offset Golden’s urban advantage as much as they did against Cain in 2014 and 2016. The Democrat’s path — though it is difficult — lies close to home.

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