BANGOR, Maine — A mostly masked group of volunteers gathered at a Dunkin’ on Saturday to get last-minute coaching before heading out to knock on doors for President Donald Trump and down-ballot local Republican candidates in the November election.
Republicans have touted their ground game and constant presence in battleground areas including Maine as their main advantage in defending Trump in November’s election. Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is just beginning here, but he has opened up a wide polling lead nationally and is winning in many swing states.
Trump prioritized Maine more than any recent Republican candidate four years ago, visiting five times ahead of an election in which he won the 2nd Congressional District. When he made an official visit here last month, he said he plans to win the state in 2020. His campaign recently placed it on a short list of states that Trump thinks he can flip this year.
That is unlikely. Trump trailed Biden 50 percent to 38 percent statewide in a Colby College poll released on Tuesday showing Democrats leading all of Maine’s key races, including in the crucial U.S. Senate race. Biden was 3 percentage points ahead in the 2nd District. No Republican presidential candidate has won Democratic-leaning Maine since 1988.
Trump’s rough polling and massive campaign apparatus raise chicken-or-egg questions about the 2020 race. His ground game is likely to matter most in Maine if the race for the one electoral vote for the 2nd District remains close and winnable as he looks to protect areas he won.
“From my perspective, as long as he remains competitive and I believe he will remain competitive, at least in the 2nd Congressional District, I think the grassroots activism is important,” said Michael Leavitt, a Republican strategist who ran President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign in Maine.
Republican organizers told volunteers on Saturday in Bangor they made 16,000 knocks on doors the past weekend and over 600,000 voter contacts during the campaign. The national party, outspent nearly 10 to 1 here by Democrats in the 2016 cycle, has spent $805,000 in Maine from January 2019 to June 2020, four times more than their Democratic counterpart.
Former Gov. Paul LePage, who chairs Trump’s Maine campaign, said in an interview earlier this month that the party only knocked on 11,000 doors in 2016 and this campaign is “something we’ve not seen for a long time in Maine.” He thought Trump may visit twice more, questioned polls and expected Trump’s standing to improve as people learn more about Biden’s history.
“He has enthusiasm on his side,” he said of Trump. “The Democrats are hunkered down and I don’t know if that’s going to help them in the long haul.”
Democrats are playing catch-up, as is typical while facing an incumbent. Biden recently hired two key Maine employees — former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee staffer James Stretch as state director and Portland City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau as a senior advisor. National Republicans have 24 staffers here.
Thibodeau touted Democrats’ registration edge. As of May, they passed independents as Maine’s largest voting bloc, with 90,000 more registered voters than Republicans, according to state data. He said that edge is “significant, but the hard work is still to be done.”
Republicans have reintroduced in-person events after shutting them down in March due to the coronavirus. In Maine, 80 percent of events are in person and and 20 percent are virtual with the party following state gathering limits, a Trump spokeswoman said. On Saturday, organizers split volunteers into pairs for canvassing, which they did not allow reporters to observe.
Democrats are focused on electronic forms of stumping. Texting and phone campaigns are key parts of the campaign’s strategy, as well as virtual events, like Biden’s wife, Jill, taking a virtual tour of a University of Maine engineering lab. A Saturday kickoff event streamed on Facebook by the state party was policy focused, with Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, discussing labor issues with U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio.
Toby McGrath, a Democratic operative who managed the 2008 and 2012 campaigns in Maine for President Barack Obama, was confident that Democrats could catch up organizationally. He said campaigns will often tout high numbers of voter contacts to get attention but should “focus more on quality over quantity.” But while he said Biden is in a good spot, things can change.
“I would rather be Biden, but 99 days is a long time in a political campaign,” McGrath said.