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Why This Vulnerable Freshman Is Surprising People

Poliquin might be vulnerable, but he's making a name for himself in Washington anyway. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

He may be new to the halls of Congress, but when the Energizer Bunny pauses, it's not for long.  

Ray-Bans shading his eyes, Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin stood on his tip-toes after votes one recent afternoon to whisper in the ear of a guard outside the House chamber. The freshman needed directions.  

Seconds later, he scurried toward the elevators.  

For Republicans, the battery-powered bunny captures Poliquin's get-things-done energy; for Democrats, it conveys a nervous personality.  

Poliquin was among the first batch of vulnerable members the National Republican Congressional Committee added to its Patriot Program this year. Last November, in a strong year for Republicans nationwide, the two-time failed candidate defeated Democratic former state Sen. Emily Cain by just five points, with an independent taking 11 percent of the vote in the open-seat contest.  

In a district that twice went for President Barack Obama by safe margins, Democrats are optimistic they can unseat Poliquin in a presidential year. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates the race  a Tossup.  

But a sitting member of Congress hasn't lost re-election in the 2nd District since 1916, and Poliquin, who's already facing a rematch against Cain, isn't acting like a one-term wonder.  

His first-quarter fundraising haul was the second highest of any freshman. He raised $702,000 and ended the period with $666,000 in cash on hand. Serving on the House Financial Services Committee helps, as does his financial background. (He worked in pension investment management and served as Maine state treasurer for two years.)  

Cain is getting help from EMILY's List and was recruited for a second try by House leadership and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee back in December, but she raised only $136,000 in the first quarter.  

"Emily, she ran a great race in a complicated year. And you know, my guess is that she’ll do it again," Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, the other member from the state, told CQ Roll Call. But "as much as anything," Pingree added, "Maine politics is just completely unpredictable."  

But Cain's early announcement — just four months after losing to Poliquin  prompted one Maine Democratic consultant, Dennis Bailey, to say the move suggests "she’s got nothing better to do." He is unaffiliated with this district's campaigns. Last cycle, Republicans attacked her for having little professional experience beyond her service in the state House and Senate.  

Cain's campaign did not respond to requests for comment. She probably won't be alone seeking the nomination.  

Bangor City Councilman Joe Baldacci, the brother of former Maine Gov. John Baldacci, has been flirting with a primary bid for months. While Baldacci reached out to the DCCC with a phone call earlier this year, staff there said they have not been working with him.  

Last week, he released to the Bangor Daily News  the topline results of an automated Public Policy Polling poll he commissioned. It showed him in a "statistical dead heat" with Poliquin. The Bangor attorney made similar moves in 2013, but with his kids older and a major trial behind him, he told CQ Roll Call he's in a different place in his life than when he thought about running last cycle.  

"I've been here all of my life," said Baldacci, 50. It could be a knock against Cain, 35, who moved to the state to attend college, or Poliquin, 61, who returned to his native Maine 26 years ago after working in Chicago and New York City.  

In a Democratic primary, Baldacci may seem a more natural fit with the socially conservative and economically liberal district, but Democratic operatives in the Pine Tree State agree that by virtue of having run before, Cain would have the advantage. "She will be the person to beat," said Democratic former state Sen. Ethan Strimling.  

State Sen. Troy Jackson, who lost to Cain by more than 40 points in last year's primary, is mulling another bid, but said it's less likely he'll get in since Cain has already secured Democratic backing from Washington.

Even before posting near record-breaking fundraising numbers, Poliquin has emerged as a freshman who wants to be known.

He canvasses the House floor to introduce himself to his Democratic colleagues, and he hasn't been shy about grabbing the ear of the president, first at the State of the Union address.  

"I purposefully positioned myself at the back of the room, nudged my way through the crowd and got his attention," Poliquin told CQ Roll Call. "And I held him there long enough," he continued, to tell him about the threats to the district's paper mills. The first-term lawmaker said he made a similar move at the White House's freshman picnic.  

“I’m certain that he knows who represents Maine’s 2nd District,” Poliquin said.  

Home to the nation's largest lobstering ports, some of New England's last operating mills, and, to the north, its most prolific potato farmers, the 2nd District is more conservative than the 1st and less tolerant of politicians they might dub "from away."  

"[It's a] really eclectic mix," said the Maine Heritage Policy Center's Matt Gagnon. "Trying to figure out who’s a good match for the district is almost impossible."  

Democrats have been quick to make an issue of Poliquin's Wall Street experience — and first-quarter cash — which puts the Republican at odds with his working class district.  

But GOP operatives say Poliquin's come a long way since his first days on the stump. In 2010 when running for the GOP nomination for governor and in 2012 when he ran for senator, "he came off as robotic," one GOP consultant said. "He showed up to a real working class environment wearing a suit and wingtips."  

Since coming to Washington, Poliquin has supported the president 14 percent of time, compared to 8 percent for the average House Republican, according to CQ Vote Watch . He cast a symbolic vote against a repeal of the Affordable Care Act that didn't include a market-driven alternative.  

Poliquin looks nothing like the East Millinocket mill worker who represented the 2nd District for 12 years before him. But Poliquin shares one very important trait with former Rep. Michael H. Michaud, and Gov. Paul R. LePage, for that matter. That's his French-Canadian heritage — and name — which plays well in the 2nd District, especially its largest metropolitan area of Lewiston-Auburn.  

"She's from New Jersey and Kentucky," Poliquin said of Cain. "I'm from Maine. That makes a difference to the people of the 2nd District."  

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