Nothing focuses the conservative mind quite like the sight of a Democrat with a gun.

“I don’t think anyone should question whether I know my way around a firearm,” Jared Golden, the Democrat running for Maine’s 2nd District congressional seat, said in an interview Wednesday. “I like shooting just like the next person.”

Democrat Jared Golden is challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin in Maine’s 2nd District.

It shows. A 30-second TV spot that began airing statewide Sunday features something not normally associated with Democratic candidates in this neck of the woods: Golden, armed with a black, 7 mm Remington bolt-action rifle, locked and loaded at an outdoor shooting range in Winterport.

“I’m Jared Golden, and I approved this message because, while Bruce Poliquin hides from his votes to gut Social Security and Medicare, I’m a straight shooter,” he tells the camera before quickly turning, aiming and hitting a bull’s-eye from a cool 100 yards away.

He’s also honest: In reality, it took 36 shots to actually hit the bull’s-eye, and Golden awoke the next morning with “one hell of a black-and-blue mark” on his right shoulder from the rifle’s powerful recoil.

“But it was fun,” he said. “I enjoyed it.”

Theories abound as to why the race between Golden and Republican two-term incumbent Poliquin has inched its way into the toss-up column with Election Day just over seven weeks away.

From the Democratic wave looming over the nation’s political landscape, to Poliquin’s own admission last year that he steers clear of the media to avoid giving “them and everyone else the ammunition they need” to send him packing, this is not your typical election cycle for a district that hasn’t ousted an incumbent in 102 years.

Still, political winds aside, the real wild card here is Golden.

A Marine veteran who enlisted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and went on to serve combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he brings to this race an authenticity that has long eluded Poliquin – perhaps best known nationally as the guy who ducked into a U.S. Capitol ladies room last year rather than answer a reporter’s questions about the Affordable Care Act.

Golden, 36, said he decided to do the gun ad, titled “Bullseye,” after growing weary of “potshots” from Poliquin’s campaign and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Congressional Leadership Fund over everything from Golden’s tattoos and T-shirts to his “D” rating from the National Rifle Association.

“I take a thoughtful approach,” Golden said. “But I’m not scared to vote for a bill that the NRA opposes if I think it’s going to save lives.”

A two-term Democratic legislator from Lewiston, Golden’s record on guns actually goes both ways.

He opposes banning silencers – he sees them as useful in maintaining good hunter-landowner relations. And he wanted no part of a recent effort to persuade the Kittery Trading Post to stop selling what protesters called “assault-style” weapons.

“To me that was just political grandstanding,” Golden said. “I’m not going to join some protest outside a business who’s just following the law.”

Yet at the same time, he opposed doing away with Maine’s concealed-carry permits because he sees that as “an erosion of the background check system we have.”

He also supported legislation allowing the courts to order weapons confiscated from domestic abusers.

“I voted for that for the simple reason that domestic violence is the number one cause of homicide in the state of Maine,” he said. “So when the NRA attacks me on a vote like that, I just question whether they’re soft on domestic violence, because I sure as hell am not. I take it very seriously.”

In short, Golden is like many Mainers when it comes to guns – resistant to regulations he sees as unnecessary or counterproductive, but open to measures that balance 2nd Amendment rights with common sense and public safety.

And now that he has the gall to appear on TV with a loaded weapon and that slightly cocky look on his youthful face?

Cue the head-spinning.

Tuesday morning, one day after the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine lambasted Golden for failing to submit the group’s candidate questionnaire, Executive Director David Trahan went on WVOM Radio in Bangor to sing Poliquin’s praises and lambaste Golden.

No surprise there. But near the end of the interview, Trahan zeroed in on the gun ad, which includes a freeze frame of a younger Golden, M-16 raised high, training a group of Iraqi soldiers near the Syrian border.

After paying his obligatory homage to Golden’s military service, Trahan said he was “a little concerned” that the ad shows Golden first with a military firearm and later on the range here in Maine “with another type of firearm.”

“We hope that Jared will not blur the lines between military firearms and the firearms that are legal for the people that we represent,” Trahan said. “Although that might have been good for politics, we hope that firearms will not be props in political ads.”

“Let me translate this for you,” Golden later offered. ” ‘One of Jared’s strengths is that he served this country in 9/11, and we want to take that away from him. So let’s try and make people uncomfortable with the idea of Jared Golden ever using any pictures of his military service whatsoever.’ ”

And while we’re at it, let’s ignore the fact that the lines between military and civilian weaponry were blurred – by the same gun retailers that SAM lists on its website – long before Golden learned to handle either.

Mused Golden, “If it was Bruce Poliquin, they’d be praising him for running this ad.”

While Trahan redefined hypocrisy on the radio Tuesday, Poliquin’s campaign spokesman was busy putting out a statement extolling Poliquin’s “A” rating from the NRA and his endorsement from SAM, while dismissing Golden as a liar with a “radical, leftist record.”

Contrast that with Golden’s recent invitation to Poliquin “to join me at the range for a day of good shooting.”

Any word back?

“No,” Golden replied. “He doesn’t usually ever respond to anything.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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