LEWISTON, Maine — Emily Cain spoke "un petit peu" French on Thursday.
The former state House minority leader met with 200 mostly white, older Mainers of French Canadian descent over smothered beef, mashed potatoes and green beans at Lewiston’s Franco Center.
Cain has been coming to these monthly gastronomical gatherings (La Rencontre) for much of the past year. Politicking is off-limits at this nonprofit cultural center, but there’s no rule against showing up and shaking hands.
Democratic leaders were recruiting Cain for a rematch against Republican Bruce Poliquin less than a month after she lost the 2014 election by 5 points.
But one crucial difference in the race this year is that because he’s now a congressman, Poliquin can't be in the district as much as Cain. While Cain attended La Rencontre, the incumbent was at a three-hour Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill.
Poliquin impressed early as an energetic lawmaker. But as a freshman Republican representing a district that twice voted for President Barack Obama, Poliquin is among the top 10 most vulnerable incumbents this year. He’s one of at least two dozen GOP members balancing the responsibilities of incumbency in Washington and a competitive re-election back home.
Incumbent vs. challenger
Lewiston, and its twin city of Auburn, make up the major population center of the largest geographic district east of the Mississippi River. Blue Dog Democrat Michael H. Michaud held it for 12 years before running for governor in 2014.
Cain’s Lewiston campaign office is on Lisbon Street, home to the old mill town’s long-shuttered business district, which Somali immigrants are now revitalizing with shops of their own.
Across the street is one of Poliquin’s district offices. And down a few blocks is Poliquin Hearing and Optical — not owned by the congressman, but nevertheless a public reminder of his French Canadian name that voters here are likely to recognize when they enter the voting booth.
But with Poliquin 600 miles away on Thursday, Cain had Lewiston to herself. She convened a business roundtable and visited at least 10 businesses run by African immigrants down the street from her office.
Having the district more to herself is just one part of what has made campaigning different this year, Cain said.
“The only thing that’s really the same is ‘My name is Emily Cain, and I’m running for Congress,’” Cain said.
For starters, Cain has hired more field staffers from Maine than in 2014, which isn't insignificant in a state where even longtime residents are considered to be “from away” if not born there.
Unlike Cain, Poliquin was actually born and raised in the state.
But another major difference in this race is that Poliquin now has a congressional voting record for Democrats to attack.
“I get the sense Poliquin is for the rich people instead of the poor people,” Roger Brousseau, 79, of Auburn said at La Rencontre. He was reacting to a Democratic ad that painted Poliquin as a Wall Street millionaire.
For Brousseau, part of Cain’s appeal is that she — despite having a 10-year state legislative record — is the political outsider in this race. “She seems like a rookie,” Brousseau said.
But incumbency works in Poliquin’s favor in many ways, too. Cain may have outraised him recently, but the congressman amassed a huge cash-on-hand advantage by posting a near-record first quarter haul — in no small part thanks to his position on the Financial Services committee.
And in this rural district, incumbency may be particularly potent. An incumbent hasn't lost the seat in 100 years.
Poliquin’s already won over last cycle’s third party challenger, Blaine Richardson, who took took 11 percent of the vote in 2014.
The presidential wild card
If they can’t do it during a presidential year — when Democratic turnout is typically higher — they fear Poliquin will become too entrenched to knock off.
Public and internal polling points to a tight race. But an unusual presidential race is making this moderate district hard to read.
Democrats can’t necessarily count on Donald Trump sinking Poliquin the way he might hurt down-ballot candidates elsewhere. Maine twice elected Gov. Paul LePage (whom some have called the original Trump), in whose administration Poliquin served. And Trump is actively courting this blue-collar district since Maine splits its electoral votes.
Nor can Democrats rely on Hillary Clinton boosting Cain.
“Emily Cain?” said Democrat Robert Langlas, 77, when asked about the Democratic candidate at La Recontre. “Is she the one running with Hillary?”
Langlas, a Trump supporter, had seen a recent National Republican Congressional Committee ad.
Cain endorsed Clinton over a year ago.
“There are things I agree and disagree with Hillary Clinton on, and things I agree and disagree with Donald Trump on,” Cain said Thursday.
If Cain is being careful not to alienate split-ticket voters, Poliquin is being even more cautious.
His campaign says only that Poliquin isn't "involved" in the presidential race. (Nor is he giving interviews to “non-Maine reporters” because “it’s a local race, not a national race,” campaign consultant Brent Littlefield said last week.)
A race to the finish
Poliquin comes home on the weekends, when he often campaigns. With members returning to their districts again in October, Cain and Poliquin will have a month to cross paths before Election Day.
For her part, Cain is counting down the days to Nov. 8.
“This is the part you work hard for over a year in advance,” she said.