Jared Golden, the Democratic candidate in Maine’s 2nd District, speaks with millworker Mike Brenner outside the ND Paper mill in Rumford on Friday. Credit: Michael Shepherd

RUMFORD, Maine — The contest in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District is one of the key battleground races in the country and on the overcast Friday afternoon before Election Day, the battleground was the parking lot of a paper mill as workers changed shifts.

The Democratic challenger, Assistant Maine House Majority Leader Jared Golden, stood with steelworkers union allies handing out campaign flyers near the gate. After 45 minutes or so, two Republican staffers showed up to hand out leaflets for U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin.

Golden was touting his labor endorsements. The pro-Poliquin flyers contrasted the Republican’s A rating from the National Rifle Association with Golden’s D rating. Twelve hours later, the incumbent was the first customer at a hunter’s breakfast.

“I think it’s a sad state of their campaign and you got two young staffers here handing out negative literature about your opponent,” Golden told a reporter near the gate. “Why don’t you come stand here and talk to these union workers yourself?”

“These are real people,” Poliquin said the next morning after holding the door for a couple at the Eastern Maine Snowmobilers club in Holden. “I can tell you who they’re going to vote for.”

Maine’s biggest races are high-stakes and deeply uncertain. Recent polls have seen Golden and Poliquin virtually tied in the 2nd District, where President Donald Trump won a historic split of Maine in the 2016 election. The gap in the race to replace Gov. Paul LePage between Democrat Janet Mills and Republican Shawn Moody has been hard to gauge.

Outside groups have spent more than $13 million in the 2nd District and TV viewers saw more ads than any other House district related to the race in a nine-day stretch in October, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. The governor’s race has seen $11 million in outside spending.

The candidates were making final cases during the weekend. Golden and Mills were in Rumford on Friday to rally local Democrats. Poliquin was on a Saturday swing through Greater Bangor. Moody campaigned with Republican legislative hopefuls in central Maine on Sunday, when State Treasurer Terry Hayes, an independent gubernatorial candidate, was in Bangor.

Health care is a key issue in the 2nd District race, with Golden hitting Poliquin over his vote last year to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Poliquin has prided himself on veterans issues during his tenure in Congress, but Golden presents a difficult matchup for him as a Marine veteran. The incumbent has leaned on his business background and gun-rights record.

The race between Moody and Mills is largely about the state’s course under LePage. Moody may not be as polarizing as the sitting Republican governor, but he has defended his legacy and touts the state’s stretch of record-low unemployment as a reason for no course change.

“People are going to get in there to vote, I think, and they’re going to say, ‘Where were we eight years ago?’ and ‘Where are we now?’” he said Sunday.

Mills, however, has pointed to Maine’s aging workforce in the nation’s oldest state by median age and a state report forecasting just 100 new jobs here over 10 years as a reason to “turn the page” on the governor in debates and stump speeches.

“Here’s what I promise you,” Mills told the crowd of Democrats at the Fraternal Order of Eagles Hall in Rumford on Friday. “If I’m privileged to be the next governor of Maine, when I take the office on Jan. 3, you’ll find in my office an open door, an open mind and an open heart.”

Democrats are hoping for a national “blue wave” in response to Trump. Their best chances seem to be in governor’s and U.S. House races. FiveThirtyEight gives them about an 80 percent chance of taking the lower chamber from Republicans, who are favored to keep the Senate.

Many conservatives are bullish. As he left breakfast to try to bag a deer, Mark Lebreton of Bradley said he had already voted for Poliquin. He called Golden “not a bad fellow,” but he said the 36-year-old was “too young” and the race is going Poliquin’s way “all the way.”

“He’s been there, he knows what it’s all about, so why not keep him in there?” Lebreton said.

Golden had good luck with other millworkers on Friday, including Mike Brenner of Livermore, who left with three signs for Democrat. He said he wanted a check on Trump and Poliquin had been “a rubber stamp” for the president while not making a good case for his health care vote.

“He seems very honest and very genuine,” Brenner said of Golden. “It’s not about Democrats or about Republicans, it’s about doing what’s right.”

The independents in each race could be important in different ways. In the 2nd District, independents Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar seem to be drawing less support, but their voters could come into play if the Poliquin-Golden race remains close in ranked-choice voting.

Democrats have labeled Hayes as a potential spoiler in the governor’s race and she has polled in the single-digits. Republicans have labeled Hayes as ultra-liberal in mailers to Democrats — a move likely designed to spur progressives to view Hayes as an alternative to Mills.

Hayes has rejected the “the us vs. them frame” that she said relies on the assumption that the party candidates “have a right to those votes.” At a craft fair in Bangor on Sunday, she won over a new voter — Michelle Van Hoose, a Democrat from Machias disillusioned by partisanship.

“I’m so tired of one side fighting the other. She sits in the middle,” Van Hoose said. “It’s so refreshing.”

BDN State House reporter Alex Acquisto contributed to this report.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...