Rep. Bruce Poliquin initially looked like a ripe target last cycle.
But the rural 2nd District flipped to President Donald Trump in November, giving him one electoral vote, and Poliquin defeated Democrat Emily Cain by an even larger margin than he did in 2014.
Now Democrats are targeting Poliquin again, hoping to reclaim a heavily white working-class district that was sympathetic to Trump’s populist overtures.
But they’ll need the right candidate to take on Poliquin, who’ll start with a hefty financial advantage. No incumbent has lost this district since 1916.
As with many rural districts, the “fit” here is a big deal. Democrats have spent millions trying to portray Poliquin as a Wall Street guy who only returned to the district (where he was born and raised) when he wanted to run for office. The two-term congressman may not look like a Maine woodsman, but he’s overcome that line of attack so far.
The burden is on Democrats to find someone they can market as a better fit for this sprawling district, home to some of the country’s biggest loggers and lobstermen. Although Cain lived and worked in the district, and Democratic ads touted her as “one of us,” she wasn’t born in Maine and didn't grow up there. She spent much of her career on a college campus, which fed into GOP attacks that she was puppet of national, liberal Democrats. (Cain is now the executive director of EMILY's List.)“She was seen as more city than country,” one Democratic strategist said. “You need as many cultural identifiers that aren’t that as you can get.”Veterans and hunters are a good place to start, the strategist added.
The right contender
There’s a sense that Democrats in Maine may be too Portland-centric, driven by the social and environmental liberalism that animates the state’s thriving southern metropolis (which is in the 1st District). The fear is that the party in Maine, and similarly, around the country, has moved too far from its rural working class roots in areas grappling with a post-manufacturing economy.
A few Democrats have already entered the 2018 race. Former state Senate candidate Jonathan Fulford announced Tuesday he was seeking Democratic nomination. The owner of a Monroe construction business, he narrowly lost 2014 and 2016 races to state Senate President Michael Thibodeau. Bar Harbor restaurateur Tim Rich announced his candidacy earlier this month and intends to kick off his campaign this fall. Dexter mail carrier Phil Cleaves has also filed paperwork to run.
But the Democratic field is expected to get more crowded soon. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan was in Maine in the wake of the committee releasing its “The House Is in Play” memo last month. The DCCC has met with three contenders, who have all been talked up locally in the state.
Marine veteran Jared Golden, 35, is the assistant majority leader in the state House. He represents part of Lewiston — an old mill town on the Androscoggin River that’s been revitalized, in part, by the influx of Somali refugees who operate many of the businesses downtown.
Golden served in Iraq and Afghanistan before earning a degree in politics from Bates College, also in Lewiston. He was a staffer for the state’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins on the Homeland Security Committee before returning to Maine to run for office.
Bangor City Councilor Ben Sprague grew up in Bangor, the center of the 2nd District. He graduated from Harvard in 2006 with a degree in government. After working for the Boston Red Sox and teaching high school, he returned to Maine to work as a financial adviser. He was elected to the city council in 2011 and re-elected in 2014. He’s a vice president at the First National Bank in Bangor.
Also in the mix is Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash, a town of fewer than 300 people in the North Maine Woods. Jackson lost the 2014 Democratic nod to Cain by 42 points. He’s a logger and would bring a labor perspective to the race. Jackson gained prominence in the state as a top surrogate for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during his presidential run last year. And as a fiery speaker, he’s frequently been the Democratic counter to Gov. Paul R. LePage. (Maine-based GOP consultant Lance Dutson calls him “the Johnny Cash of the Allagash.”)
Regardless of who gets in on the Democratic side, the race could look a lot different if it’s an open seat.
Poliquin has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate, and he hasn’t yet made an announcement either way about running for re-election. But the House Financial Services Committee member continues to raise money in his federal account (ending the last quarter with nearly $1.2 million), which he wouldn’t be able to put toward a state campaign. Candidates on both sides of the aisle are waiting to see if Collins decides to run for governor.
Since being elected, Poliquin’s made a name for himself for not answering questions, often dodging reporters in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol.
“He’s gotten pigeonholed lately because of his unwillingness to take firm positions,” said Dutson, the GOP consultant, referring to the congressman’s reticence to answer questions about Trump or health care. “Democrats have gotten very good at playing that ‘gotcha’ thing with Bruce,” he added.
But he doesn’t expect Poliquin to have much trouble given what he sees as the current “lackluster opposition.” As long as Poliquin hews to a more pragmatic wing of the GOP than the tea party wave he came in on, Dutson expects him to have the seat “for as long as he wants it.”
Poliquin’s team isn't taking anything for granted.
“We expect any campaign Congressman Poliquin is in will be a competitive race,” Poliquin campaign consultant Brent Littlefield said Tuesday. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Republican.