AUBURN, Maine (AP) – Donald Trump is not on the ballot in Maine’s 2nd congressional district this year, but his brand of politics is.
In a race that will help decide control of the US House of Representatives, Democratic Rep. Jared Golden will defend his seat against former Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin and independent candidate Tiffany Bond. The race is a rematch for Golden and Poliquin, who ran for the same seat in 2018 when Golden emerged victorious by a razor-thin margin.
The appeal of Trump-style politics has since grown in the district, although it is represented by Golden, a moderate Democrat. Poliquin, who represented the 2nd District as a moderate Republican from 2014 to 2018, has shifted his own message to the right to try to take advantage of these headwinds.
The result is a race that could be an indicator of Trump’s continued influence in swing districts and rural politics.
County voters are paying attention. Mary Hunter, a Democrat and retired academic living in the city of Lewiston, still thinks Golden is the right candidate for the district. She said she votes for him in part because she is concerned that Democrats could lose control of Congress. And she’s aware that Trump still has a huge impact on many voters in her district.
“Most people are some kind of red or blue team. I think Jared is doing his best to get down the middle. He’s very centrist,” Hunter said. “I don’t know if that’s any use to him.”
But in Auburn, a nearby city of about 23,000 in the 2nd Ward, Coastal Defense Firearms owner Rick LaChapelle said he plans to vote for Poliquin. LaChapelle, a Republican councilman in Lewiston, said he respects Golden but feels the Democratic Party has gone too extreme.
“His party is too radical. He can’t overcome the strength of his party, so you have to change the party,” LaChapelle said.
The district, one of two in Maine, includes the state’s second and third largest cities — Lewiston and Bangor — but is mostly made up of vast rural areas in northern and western Maine. It also encompasses the state’s Down East coast and is home to Maine’s traditional industries such as lobster fishing, logging, and potato and blueberry growing.
The district is also geographically the largest in the United States east of the Mississippi River and far more politically diverse than the heavily Democratic 1st Congressional District in southern Maine. Trump won the 2nd District in 2016 and did even better in the district in 2020, although he lost the statewide vote both times due to overwhelming margins in the 1st District, located in liberal Portland.
Poliquin has focused his campaign on issues such as restricting immigration and protecting gun rights. It’s a departure from his previous campaigns, which focused more on controlling taxes and protecting rural jobs, although he continues to tout these issues. His website has warned about liberals who want to disappoint law enforcement and push critical race theory in schools, and boasted of his work with Trump while he was serving in Congress.
“I came out of semi-retirement because our country and state are in a lot of trouble,” said Poliquin, who was once an investment manager and served as Maine’s state treasurer for two years.
Golden, a Marine Corps veteran, has long positioned himself as a moderate supporting the 2nd Amendment and working to protect industries like commercial fishing and papermaking. This time he continues that approach.
Golden has shown a willingness to take a stand against his own party over the years, including opposing President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan in August. His positions have sometimes earned him crossover endorsements from groups that often support Republicans, such as when he garnered support from the state’s largest police union in July.
The union also supported former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who is running for his old job. Golden said he expects voters to reward him for standing up to Democratic Party leadership on issues like Biden’s $740 billion climate and health bill, which he opposed.
“In the last two years, I have not known anyone who has been more independent and more willing to take a stand against their own party than I have been,” Golden said. “I’m not trying to strategize, ‘How do I stick with the Democratic voters or the Trump voters?'”
The race will involve the use of ranked voting, which Golden needed to win the seat in 2018. Bond, who finished third in 2018, said independent voters in the race will be the ones who will decide. She said she is focusing her campaign on issues such as improving access to health care and tackling climate change.
Bond said she expects ranking voting to play a role again this time.
“I was the candidate who got all the votes that no party could get,” she said.
The race will likely be a lot closer than Golden’s re-election win in 2020, said Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine. Golden won that election comfortably over Republican Dale Crafts.
Things are getting tighter this time in part because of the national backlash against Democrats over issues like inflation, Brewer said. But it’s also getting tighter because the 2nd Ward is unpredictable, he said.
“It’s the kind of district where many of the people Trump appealed to in 2016 live. Relatively rural, mostly white, working-class voters who have a sense of grievance, of economic grievance,” Brewer said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that this race will be closer than Golden’s last race.”
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