While opening a campaign office during a U.S. Senate bid in 2012, Republican Bruce Poliquin described himself as someone who loves “to argue with liberals.” In Washington, he said would be “the best friend to the conservative movement” that Maine “has ever had, ever.”

Poliquin lost the primary then, but he bounced back on Tuesday.

That’s when he became the first Republican in 20 years to win the seat in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. He did it in impressive fashion, winning with 47.1 percent of votes over Democrat Emily Cain’s 41.8 percent despite a third challenger, independent conservative Blaine Richardson, taking 11 percent.

Poliquin will join a strengthened Republican majority in the U.S. House, buoyed by a new Republican majority in the Senate after a rough midterm Election Day for Democrats and President Obama.

Partisan battles loom between Obama and congressional Republicans, and one test next year will be raising the federal debt limit. Congress postponed the issue until March, but lawmakers probably won’t need to vote on raising the limit until August or later.

Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, expected to become Senate majority leader, told reporters during his first news conference after the midterm elections that “we’re not going to be shutting down the government or defaulting on the national debt.”

On Wednesday, Poliquin said a government shutdown resulting from the debt limit debate must be avoided.

“We need to make sure we keep the government open,” he said, “and if we have fiscally prudent, fiscally responsible people who have business experience,” it shouldn’t be an issue.

Poliquin wouldn’t say specifically whether he would vote to raise the debt ceiling, but a campaign spokesman said later that he “would never vote to shut the government down” while working to reduce the nation’s debt.

Conservative observers say Poliquin will be pragmatic, but some aren’t so sure. At a news conference Wednesday, Poliquin, 61, a former state treasurer from Oakland, sounded different than he did in 2012, saying he would work with Democrats and independents to help the district’s businesses, seniors and veterans.

Washington’s biggest challenge, he said, is “making sure folks that have been elected – in this case, Republicans in the majority – can prove to the American people that they can govern.”

“Not hold things up,” Poliquin said, “but work together and prove that they can get things done and govern.”

Democrats may scoff at that, given Poliquin’s history of partisan battles as treasurer and in his campaigns so far. But he has worked to build coalitions along Maine’s right, getting endorsements from the Maine Republican Liberty Caucus, a libertarian conservative group, and the anti-abortion Christian Civic League of Maine. Both helped elect him.

Poliquin also has reached out to diametrically opposed groups. For example, after the machinists’ union at Bath Iron Works, the vital shipyard employing about 2,000 residents of the 2nd District, endorsed Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, Poliquin asked to meet with union leaders, who usually back Democrats and didn’t endorse Poliquin.

In that October meeting, Poliquin said he wouldn’t support national right-to-work legislation, which would make it illegal for companies and unions to sign contracts making union dues a condition of employment. House Republicans are trying to do that. It is unlikely to pass with Obama in office.

However, Jay Wadleigh, the union’s president, said he didn’t expect Poliquin to oppose that idea, seeing him as similar to Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who supports right-to-work legislation.

When Poliquin expressed his views, “I thought that was encouraging,” Wadleigh said.

Matthew Gagnon, who worked for Poliquin’s campaign before becoming executive director of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center earlier this year, said “there’s no denying that Bruce is going to be a conservative member of Congress, but he’s not going to be an ideological member of Congress.”

He perhaps can’t afford to be, since Democrats probably will mount a strong challenge to take the seat from Poliquin in 2016, a presidential election year in which Democrats could fare better.

Potential Democratic opponents could include the current office-holder, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who lost to LePage on Tuesday; or Cain, the state senator from Orono who lost to Poliquin.

In an interview Thursday, Cain said she hasn’t decided on her plans but said nothing is off the table, including “running for office sooner or later and working in or around politics.”

Also, Maine Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, a feisty labor Democrat and logger from Allagash who lost the June primary to Cain, said Friday that he isn’t ruling out a 2016 run against Poliquin, who he said “doesn’t represent the district.”

However, Jackson said he may run as an independent, since establishment Democratic interests lined up against him in the primary, including the League of Conservation Voters, a national environmental group. But Jackson said he spent “just about everything I had” on the primary bid, and money would be a factor.

Poliquin, meanwhile, will be a freshman lawmaker in a hierarchical​ Washington system that places a premium on seniority. In the short term, Gagnon and others say, Poliquin can contribute by being placed on committees where he can employ a technocratic knowledge of finances, such as the committee handling banking, insurance and housing matters.

Poliquin rejected “tea party” labels affixed to him during his campaign against Cain, but Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Orono, said Poliquin’s past statements suggest “that there will be some connection between him and the more tea party-type faction of the GOP.”

Poliquin can’t compromise too much, said Vic Berardelli of Newburgh, a member of the Maine Republican Liberty Caucus’ national board, for fear of alienating his most ardent supporters.

“I want to see how he does – without being too ideologically strident, which he can’t afford to do – at keeping his base happy,” Berardelli said.

Brewer said most of the electorate is “desperate for what they say is politics that works again,” so Poliquin has to take a moderate approach in his remarks now.

“But let’s wait to see what happens when votes are cast,” Brewer said.

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

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