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Maine’s 2nd Congressional District should be a Republican stronghold, based on one line of thinking in the Democratic Party. After the 2016 election, one party postmortem suggested Democrats focus their energy on districts that are more urban, educated and diverse.The Maine 2nd is 72 percent rural, ranking only behind Kentucky-5 as the most rural district in the country by percentage of population. It’s 95 percent white. And only 21.6 percent of its residents hold a bachelor’s degree, ranking 314th out of 435 districts.
And yet the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both have it ranked only as “Leans Republican,” just one tick from “Toss-up.” The district voted for Barack Obama in 2008 (55/43) and 2012 (53/44) before flipping for Donald Trump in 2016 (51/41). It was represented by moderate Republican and future U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe from 1979 to 1995, then by Democrats John Baldacci and Mike Michaud from 1995 until 2015.
The current incumbent is U.S. Representative Bruce Poliquin, a native of Waterville, Maine. Poliquin ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for governor in 2010, was elected by the Legislature as state treasurer in 2010, and ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate in 2012. He won election as the 2nd District’s member of Congress in 2014 by defeating Democratic State Senator Emily Cain, and he won again in the rematch in 2016.
“He won both of those races relatively easily, so he’s certainly favored to win reelection,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “That being said, both the Democrats and Republicans have already reserved air time. Both parties think they can win that seat in November.”
The 2nd District is the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi River. It covers all but the regions in and around the cities of Augusta and Portland. The massive rural district extends from the New Hampshire border on the west to the Canadian border in the north. It’s eastern border is the easternmost point in the United States — West Quoddy Head. The district’s economy was long dominated by resource extraction, whether through lobster fishing on the coast or logging in the interior forests. Some mills still remain, but many have closed. Newer economic drivers include outdoor recreation, a revival of small-scale agriculture, and growth of the biomedical industry in the Bangor metro area.
In considering the 2nd District’s tilt to the right in 2016, Brewer points to the 2010 election of Governor Paul LePage.
“You can make the argument that LePage was Trump before Trump,” Brewer said. “He won support in parts of 2nd District by running as this outsider who was not politically correct and didn’t care how he came off. He said what he thought and was going to disrupt the status quo in government. That appealed and continues to appeal to Maine voters in the 2nd District.”
Trump pushed many of the same buttons.
“Look at Trump’s message that he was going to go in and bring manufacturing back, to stick up for white working class,” Brewer said. “Trump’s messages on trade really resonate here. Guns are big, too. Second amendment rights are huge, and Trump was on the right side of that. Also you have to take into account there’s this racial and ethnic conservatism. Maine is the whitest state in the country, so there’s a certain amount of appeal to that here as well.”
Yet there are also plenty of people in the district who oppose Trump, he said. That includes a number of Republicans who feel he doesn’t represent the party’s values, especially when compared to moderate Republican U.S. Senator Susan Collins, who is very popular in the district.
“That’s what gives Democrats a fair amount of hope they can take this seat back, so long as they don’t get hung up on guns,” Brewer said.
Democrats are set to nominate a new challenger in a primary on June 12, using a new process called “ranked-choice voting.” Voters rank all the candidates on the ballot. The votes are tallied, and if one gets more than 50 percent, he or she wins. If no one gets a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and the ballots for that candidate are recounted using their number-two choice. The process continues until someone receives a majority of votes.
In a year in which a record number of women are running for—and winning—their party’s nomination for elected office, all of the Democrats on the primary ballot in Maine-2 are white men. They do offer diverging styles and strategies that represent potential ways for Democrats to challenge Republicans in rural areas.
A recent SurveyUSA poll conducted for the Bangor Daily News shows two frontrunners: Jared Golden, a state representative who serves as assistant majority leader in the Maine House of Representatives, and Lucas St. Clair, a conservationist who helped organize federal recognition of the recently established Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Craig Olson, who sells books and runs the solid waste transfer station on a small island in Penobscot Bay, is also running. The poll, which was conducted in late April before a fourth candidate dropped out of the race, showed St. Clair leading Golden by a narrow margin.
Golden is a veteran of the U.S. Marines. He enlisted after the 9/11/2001 attacks and served four years, including deployments to Afghanistan in 2004 and Iraq in 2005-2006. A former staffer to U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a Republican, he was recruited to run for Congress as part of an effort to get more veterans to run as Democrats. In the state House, Golden represents Lewiston, the second largest city in Maine and the largest in the second district.
St. Clair, meanwhile, is the son of Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby. He grew up in the district and moved away before returning, in part to run the family foundation, which managed a large amount of land in Maine’s North Woods. When the family began lobbying to turn the land into a national park, many locals opposed the idea and organized opposition. Over time, St. Clair changed minds and built a coalition of support, and in 2016, Obama created the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument from the more than 87,000 acres that the foundation had donated.
The two candidates take many similar stances. Both call for more rural broadband, support pro-choice positions on abortion, believe climate change is real, want universal pre-kindergarten, think the governor should follow through on a 2017 state referendum in favor of expanding Medicaid, don’t think Veterans Administration services should be privatized, and refuse to take money from the National Rifle Association.
Golden did not respond to interview requests, but St. Clair said that healthcare and related issues like the security of Medicare are the most important issue for many voters.
“Above and beyond anything else, it’s healthcare,” St. Clair said. “The 2nd is white and rural, but it’s also super-old. There are more Democratic primary voters over the age of 90 than under the age of 25. When there starts to be instability in the healthcare market, people start getting freaked out.”
Brewer notes that previous Democrats who have held the congressional seat were often endorsed by the NRA, and thinks that could be an issue in the general election. Golden did sponsor a 2015 bill to authorize concealed carry without a permit, and Brewer said that his military credentials may win him supporters among gun voters who might otherwise be skeptical of his record.
St. Clair might face some blowback, both because he is moving into the 2nd District from Portland, which is in the 1st District, and also because some people still hold grudges from the push to make Katahdin a national monument. On the other hand, he’s also demonstrated ability to bring people of disparate views together, and he has the ability to self-fund a campaign.
The eventual Democratic nominee faces a winnable but difficult fall race against Poliquin, who has already raised more than $2.4 million this cycle and has $2.2 million in cash on hand, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Although the Cook Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both are tilting to the Republican incumbent with “Leans R” ratings, the district is in play for Democrats.
“The most important thing is that yes, this is a swing district,” Brewer said. “Regardless of how heavily it went for Trump in 2016, it went for Obama two times before that. It had a Democratic congressman before. Now it’s got a Republican seeking his third term. It’s not a lock for either party. It’s a huge geographic district, which means there’s a fair amount of demographic diversity. Whoever wins this race has to be able to speak to voters at least to some degree in these very different parts of this state.”