LLBEAN

ME-02: Poliquin Moves From Lean Republican to Toss Up

Rep. Bruce Poliquin (ME-02) has proven an elusive Democratic target. In both 2014 and 2016, Democrats touted promising polls and swore they could turn Poliquin's wealth and Wall Street past against him. But both times, Republicans effectively cast Orono state Sen. Emily Cain as an Ivy League elitist who grew up outside the state, and Poliquin prevailed in this mostly rural, working-class Down East district.

In 2018, 35-year old state Rep. Jared Golden presents a much tougher contrast for Poliquin, 64. Unlike Cain, Golden grew up squarely in the 2nd CD in the dairy farm town of Leeds. He enlisted in the Marines after 9/11, served several tours blowing down doors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even worked several years on GOP Sen. Susan Collins's homeland security committee and personal office staff. 

On June 26, Golden won the Democratic primary 49 percent to 42 percent against wealthy environmental activist Lucas St. Clair, whose liberalism and recent residency in Portland likely would have doomed him in November. Now, Golden plans to contrast himself as a "Marine who runs into fire" against an incumbent who "ducks into bathrooms" when asked which way he'll vote on repealing the ACA. 

The 2nd CD has a strong union Democratic heritage but a proud independent streak. It's 94 percent white and 22 percent of adults hold college degrees. For over a decade it reelected pro-life Democrat Mike Michaud, and in 2012, it voted for Barack Obama by nine points. But in 2014, GOP Gov. Paul LePage trampled Michaud here. In 2016, it gave Donald Trump its lone electoral vote, 51 percent to 41 percent.

However, Golden has a base in union-heavy Lewiston and is the type of Democrat who could take advantage of a favorable national environment. In some ways, he could be Maine's version of Conor Lamb: he's pro-choice but pro-tariff, pledges he won't support Nancy Pelosi for speaker and won't be afraid to talk about his experiences leading troops in combat or demonstrate his facility with firearms in ads.

Democrats argue the political environment has changed dramatically here since 2016, thanks to the GOP's healthcare and tax bills, both of which Poliquin supported. In fall 2017, the 2nd CD voted by four points for a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid over LePage's objections. Poliquin backers suggest that's a misleading indicator, because the pro-expansion side vastly outspent the LePage side. 

Indeed, money is going to be Golden's biggest hurdle. Poliquin is expected to file with over $2.5 million on hand at the end of June, while Golden has raised $1.1 million but is expected to file with just over $400,000 on hand after his competitive primary. The cash differential could force the DCCC, VoteVets or others to spend heavily here to keep Golden in contention early in the fall.

Another twist: this fall, Maine will be using Ranked-Choice Voting in a general election for the first time, which could help Golden. In 2014, Poliquin won with just 47 percent while an independent took 11 percent. This year, there are two left-leaning independents on the 2nd CD ballot. But if their voters select Golden as their second choice, those votes would go to Golden in an "instant runoff" if no one breaks 50 percent.

Poliquin won't be easy to beat. The 2nd CD's voters haven't ousted an incumbent for 102 years, and even Democrats admit Poliquin strategist Brent Littlefield has masterfully crafting Poliquin's image and campaign the past four years. Furthermore, Trump is still fairly popular here. But Golden may be one of Democrats' top candidates in the country. The race moves from Lean Republican to the Toss Up column.

Image: Bruce Poliquin at new L.L. Bean manufacturing center | Credit: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty