AUGUSTA, Maine — An energized Republican base could be critical to former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s bid to recapture his old seat in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District after Republicans struggled to channel grassroots energy in the congressional race each of the past two cycles.
U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, narrowly ousted Poliquin in 2018, a historically good year for Democrats. But the likely rematch between the two now comes with Democrats just barely in power and President Joe Biden underwater in approval polling. If that environment holds, historical patterns suggest Republicans will benefit.
A 2018 election post-mortem report from the Maine Republican Party attributed Poliquin’s narrow loss to several factors, including a focus on health care, a favorable environment for Democrats fueled by opposition to then-President Donald Trump and inclusion of two left-leaning independents from whom Golden gained votes during a ranked-choice runoff.
But the analysis also cited concerns about Poliquin, saying he lacked the “ability to generate ‘Trump-like’ energy.” It pointed to U.S. Senate candidate Eric Brakey, a state senator from Auburn who lost to independent U.S. Sen. Angus King by 19 points in a three-way race, as the Republican who had generated the most grassroots enthusiasm that year.
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It may be a factor again. Former Gov. Paul LePage, a conservative grassroots favorite, is running against Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, the focus of Republican activism here during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether the party can leverage that against Golden, who has made several high-profile votes against his party in the past year, is a key question in early 2022.
The Maine Republican Party declined to comment on the specifics of the 2018 document last week, but pointed to the party’s successes in the years since, including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ 2020 reelection campaign and Trump’s victory in the 2nd District that year.
“Republicans are in [a] very good position as we head into the election year, and any incumbent Democrat should be nervous,” said Jason Savage, the party’s executive director. “That very much includes Congressman Golden.”
Poliquin has looked to highlight inflation concerns early in his campaign, pointing to Democratic-led spending bills — the latest of which Golden opposed — as a driver. He has also tapped into a range of other Republican issues, including on immigration and vaccine mandates, previewing a different set of issues than the 2018 campaign.
Before and during that run, Poliquin never said whether he voted for Trump. Recently, he has criticized Golden’s vote to impeach the former president in 2019, even though the incumbent was the only member of the House to split his votes on the two Democratic impeachment articles against Trump, who twice won the 2nd District.
Interest in the 2022 election in Republican circles so far is like “night and day” compared with previous cycles, said Mary Adams, a longtime party activist from Garland. Penobscot County Commissioner Andre Cushing, a former Republican lawmaker from Hampden, said people would be “comfortable” with Poliquin, citing his record in Congress.
“Many people know what Bruce has done in the past,” Cushing said.
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Poliquin officially has to get through a primary before he can face Golden. While the Maine Republican Party got an exception to party rules last year to formally support LePage ahead of any 2022 gubernatorial primary, it has not made a similar move for Poliquin, though Savage did not address a question about why.
He is still in good position, raising nearly $900,000 in the first two months of his bid while receiving endorsements from two groups affiliated with national Republican leaders. State Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, dropped out of the 2nd District race and backed Poliquin. Rep. Mike Perkins, R-Oakland, said last month he was leaving the race to pursue a Maine Senate seat. He argued he would have still beaten Poliquin, though he struggled to raise money.
Three Republicans remain, including Caratunk Selectman Liz Caruso, whose campaign did not respond to questions. She told Maine Public in November that she had “real respect” for Poliquin but thought voters wanted “someone who can identify with rural Maine.” Political newcomers Garret Swazey of Bangor and Sean Joyce of Newburgh are also running.
There is still uncertainty around the political environment, as the circumstances around key issues such as inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic could shift.
“My observation is that people are not necessarily in love with Republicans, they’re just strongly dissatisfied with the people in charge,” Cushing said.
There also remain questions about how Republican enthusiasm will play against Golden, who won reelection by 6 percentage points last year as Collins and Trump, both Republicans, won the 2nd District soundly. The Democratic congressman has bucked his party on several high votes of late to the chagrin of progressives. But national Republicans have mounted a multi-million dollar ad campaign again aiming to tie him to national party figures.
Golden said last month he was less concerned about the national environment, saying his 2018 campaign worked to motivate Mainers rather than simply riding a “blue wave.” That will be his strategy again in the run-up to this campaign.
“Let the people I represent see my work,” Golden said, “Let them look under the hood and see what’s in the engine, and then we just take care of business by doing the best job we can every day.”
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.