RUMFORD, Maine — In his 83 years, Francis Jannace has seen major economic and political changes in his hometown. Businesses have come and gone along Congress Street, a downtown artery near the paper mill on a rugged portion of the Androscoggin River.
That mill helped Rumford grow to more than 10,000 people in the middle of the last century. The Oxford County hub now has fewer than 6,000 today. In 1980, the mill employed about 1,200 union workers. It hums now with about half, but it is still so intertwined with the town that a September coronavirus outbreak there led businesses and schools to briefly shut down.
That history informs the compelling politics of Rumford. The historic Democratic stronghold is one of 52 Maine cities and towns to vote for Republican President Donald Trump in 2016 only to flip two years later to help Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden win a narrow race in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.
Rumford and towns like it will be crucial to whether Trump can again carry the one elector from the district. He won it by 10 percentage points in 2016, but polls this year have him lagging former Vice President Joe Biden nationally with the two tied in the 2nd District. It is the closest of any race for an elector in the nation, according to a model from Decision Desk HQ.
Jannace did not vote for Trump in 2016, though he appreciated his handling of the trade war with China. The president won while railing against trade agreements reviled in Rumford and other historic manufacturing centers. But Jannace said Trump’s leadership “gradually fell apart.”
“He promised a change,” he said. “He looked like he could turn things around, but it didn’t work out.”
Golden outran his party’s 2016 presidential nominee all across the 2nd District, but he did best in Rumford and other western areas of Maine, in his home area of Lewiston and Auburn and the St. John Valley. All of those are historic Democratic strongholds where Republicans, including former Gov. Paul LePage, did well in recent years, and places where many talk about younger people leaving the area along with legacy jobs.
Biden was on the presidential ticket in 2012 as the running mate to President Barack Obama, who won Rumford by nearly 30 percentage points. Golden may give him some hope here. The congressman’s 2020 opponent, former state Rep. Dale Crafts of Lisbon, has been in lockstep with Trump, but the freshman Democrat has held a comfortable lead in polls this year.
Trump visited Maine five times in 2016 and has tried to connect with the 2nd District in office, touring a Guilford medical swab manufacturer in June, extending aid to lobstermen and other fishermen affected by his trade war with China and sending two of his sons to stump for him in Maine. The White House recently issued a report hailing the effect of his trade policies on Maine, dropping the names of towns from Skowhegan to Bridgewater.
Biden’s campaign has targeted the 2nd District too. The candidate’s wife, Jill Biden, played up the campaign’s economic recovery plan in Orono in late September before meeting with lobstermen in Blue Hill. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, a former presidential candidate herself, visited Lewiston last weekend to talk about health care and workers’ rights.
Leo Grassette, 84, a Democrat who worked 41 years at the Rumford mill, voted for Trump in 2016 because he did not like his party’s policies on abortion and immigration, and liked the president’s promise of tax cuts and new trade deals. But he backed Golden in 2018 because he liked the way he talked. He has already voted early for Trump and Golden this year.
But Grassette also thinks his town will vote against Trump in 2020 because of its long-held Democratic status. He does not talk politics with some of his “die-hard” Democratic friends because it can get heated, he said.
“I get the sense around here that people who voted for him don’t like the job he’s done,” Grassette said of the president.
Local Democrats have had a hard four years in the Rumford area. In 2016, three-term state Sen. John Patrick was beaten by Republican Lisa Keim of Dixfield. Two years later, in a good year for Democrats, the party’s only incumbent state representative to lose was from Rumford.
Patrick, a retired union millworker running for that House seat in 2020 against Rep. Josanne Dolloff, R-Milton Township, hoped Biden’s pro-union stance and advocacy for a higher minimum wage would resonate. The race could also hinge on a sweeping issue like the pandemic.
“Every issue matters nowadays because [the 2nd District] seems to be a lot more fluid than it was in the past,” Patrick said.
BDN writer Jessica Piper contributed research.