BATH, Maine — President Donald Trump is banking on trade policy, defense and the economy in the last two weeks of his fight to retain Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, testing whether his message has the same resonance amid the coronavirus pandemic as it did four years ago.
Democrats, meanwhile, have gestured at a range of issues to criticize the Republican president, hitting back on health care and the federal government’s coronavirus response while former Vice President Joe Biden’s stylistic differences with Trump. The Democratic nominee has maintained a large lead in statewide polling, but he and Trump are close in the 2nd District.
The president has given Maine significant attention this year, making an official visit in June after visiting the state five times in 2016. Vice President Mike Pence headlined a rally in Hermon earlier this week and two of Trump’s sons have recently campaigned here.
Those visits have been a chance to highlight official Trump actions aimed at Maine that Biden surrogates have largely dismissed. But these policies and pledges have not had time to take full effect while the pandemic dominates the landscape.
National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien visited Bath and Kittery on Wednesday, where he discussed the federal goal of expanding the Navy from 296 ships to 350 ships, an increase that would shore up jobs at Maine’s shipyards, which together employ more than 12,000 workers. It is one of the few Trump pledges that has united Maine’s congressional delegation.
O’Brien stuck to defense policy on the official visit to Bath Iron Works and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, though his presence highlighted the Trump campaign’s argument that Biden would cut the defense budget and take away jobs — something Biden has said he would not do.
In the past five months, the president signed an order reopening a national marine monument southeast of Cape Cod for commercial fishing, rolled out aid to offset losses from the trade war with China and announced the elimination of European Union tariffs on lobsters.
Many of these changes are uncertain. The Navy will have to pony up for a fleet expansion that was first put into federal law in 2017 but has not materialized. Though Trump has depicted the national marine monument as being directly off the Maine coast, it is well out of range for fishermen here and the move is under a legal challenge from environmentalists.
The pandemic, which has pushed tens of thousands of Mainers out of work, has also soured the economy that was supposed to be one of the president’s strengths as he ran for reelection, making the Trump message largely a promise even as he occupies the White House.
“As we move forward into next year, we’re going to see the Trump economic policy create prosperity in states like Maine,” said Peter Navarro, a White House trade adviser who spoke with a reporter this week in a campaign role.
Navarro was among the president’s advisers to visit Maine in June. Maine lobstermen saw business plummet in 2018 and 2019 when China instituted retaliatory tariffs in response to tariffs Trump put on certain Chinese goods. Trump said at a roundtable with former Gov. Paul LePage and fishing interests that he was naming Navarro “lobster king” and point man on the industry.
More than 1,200 Maine lobstermen and fishermen have submitted applications for the aid program totaling $26 million in funding, according to a White House report released last week touting Trump’s economic accomplishments for Maine, though the state’s largest trade association for lobster dealers has criticized the program for not helping processors and exporters who lost out because of the tariffs.
The report led by Navarro also highlighted the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which went into effect earlier this year, fulfilling Trump’s campaign promise to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. The revised agreement passed with bipartisan support, though both of Maine’s Democratic U.S. representatives voted against it, saying its changes were not enough and citing concerns about environmental protections and labor standards.
“[Trump’s] claims to get rid of NAFTA really appealed to people” in a free-trade wary state, said Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, a top Biden surrogate. “But what he came up with for a replacement really is not any better at all. There’s hardly any change.”
Democrats have heavily criticized Trump on trade but have made their case against him more about other issues. While Pence declared in Hermon this week that the Trump administration had ended an era of “economic surrender” to China, the Biden campaign released a statement pointing to the vice president’s role on the coronavirus task force.
As cases have continued to increase since a September lull with more than 220,000 dead nationwide and the fifth-highest per-capita death rate among all countries, according to Johns Hopkins University, the Biden campaign called Trump’s response to the virus the “greatest failure of any presidential administration in history.”
At Wednesday night’s “Republicans for Biden” event, headlined by former Sen. Bill Cohen, several other former Maine elected officials addressed Biden’s character and framed the presidential race as a battle for the “soul of the nation,” a line the Democrat has often used.
“I don’t agree with everything that Joe Biden wants to do from a policy perspective, but I know that as he debates these issues, he’s going to do it without demonizing the opposition, as we’ve seen far too often,” said former state Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican who represented Augusta. “That’s character.”