With a month to go before Election Day, the contenders for Maine’s 2nd District congressional seat are locked in one of the closest races in the country.

Nationally, this election is shaping up to be a tough one for Republican congressional candidates, especially in districts where Democrats have a chance. Polls are indicating an advantage for Democrats, and Republicans have more or less given up on some incumbents seeking re-election where advertising is costly and suburban women are enraged at President Trump and his party’s agenda.

But nobody’s throwing in the towel on U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, the two-term Republican representing Maine’s 2nd District who faces a solid Democratic challenger along with two independents whose supporters may wind up deciding the outcome because of Maine’s ranked-choice voting process.

“It’s going to be a tight one,” said Karl Trautman, a political science instructor at Central Maine Community College.

Facing Lewiston Democrat Jared Golden, Poliquin “is running scared and probably should be,” said Sandy Maisel, the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government at Colby College.

“If Golden can’t beat him, nobody ever will,” Maisel said. “He’s sort of the perfect candidate.”

Anyone watching television in Maine can see that both sides are slugging it out. In the first two weeks of September, 4,337 ads aired in Maine, with slightly more than half taking the Democratic side, according to statistics gathered by the Wesleyan Media Project.

SECOND-MOST ADS IN NATION

Only one district in America – in upstate New York – saw more. And only two districts nationally had more spending on ads than the $800,000 forked over during those two weeks in the Pine Tree State.

“You can’t turn on the television without being overwhelmed” by the many commercials for the 2nd District race, Maisel said.

Amy Fried, the political science department chairwoman at the University of Maine, said the pace “isn’t going to slow down.”

“It’s going to be a very, very well-funded race,” she said, with the candidates and outside groups running a stream of ads on television, cable and online.

Both major party candidates will have all of the cash they need to run good campaigns, Maisel said. They will each have the ability “to do everything you can do with money without wasting it.”

The competing commercials are just the most obvious example of what’s at stake on Nov. 6 – and it’s more than just the right to represent the sprawling, hardscrabble northern Maine district.

Control of the U.S. House may hinge on whether Poliquin returns to Capitol Hill for a third term.

DEMOCRATS SHOW OPTIMISM

Democrats are increasingly confident they will wind up with a majority in the 435-member House after the midterm votes are counted next month. If they can pull in enough votes to knock out Poliquin in a blue wave sweeping aside Republican candidates, it’s a virtual certainty the Republicans’ eight years at the helm of the House will come to an end.

But James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said he is “not as convinced there will be as big of a blue wave in Maine as elsewhere,” partly because Maine Democrats “have had trouble performing as well in midterms compared to presidential years in general” and partly because “Mainers are ticket-splitting independents where personality is often key.”

The only public poll in the district, by The New York Times and Siena College, found that in mid-September, Poliquin held a 47-42 lead over Golden among likely voters, with 11 percent undecided.

It didn’t ask about independents or consider their potential role with ranked-choice voting in pushing Poliquin or Golden over the 50 percent threshold with votes that might ultimately count toward the final tally.

The two independents – Will Hoar, a Southwest Harbor educator, and Tiffany Bond, a Portland lawyer – are likely to secure enough votes to prevent either of the major party candidates from winning in the first round of balloting, which requires a majority of the votes cast.

RANKED VOTE MAY HELP GOLDEN

Trautman said ranked-choice voting is “the wild card” in the contest, but he thinks it will probably work to Golden’s advantage.

He said that voters who pick Hoar or Bond first “definitely want change” so they’re likely to choose Golden over Poliquin as their alternative option. “I don’t see how they would put Poliquin in there,” Trautman said.

Maisel said that Poliquin has been handicapped by the necessity of spending most of his time in Washington this year, but even if he had spent more time in Maine, it may not have helped much.

He said Poliquin “oozes Wall Street” and sophistication while Golden “oozes groundskeeper at a golf club” – a reference to Golden growing up on a golf course in Leeds owned by his parents. Maisel said Mainers are likely to find they can relate to him better.

Melcher said personality counts.

Democrats “have perceived Poliquin as someone whose personality and story don’t fit the 2nd District – that he’s an elitist, rich carpetbagger.”

As a consequence, he said, Democrats “have underestimated him due to the strength of their dislike of him, much as they have done with Paul LePage.”

Melcher said Golden, with his military background, is in “a much better position” than Emily Cain, whom Poliquin defeated in 2014 and 2016, in part because she came from New Jersey and in part because she held a white-collar university job in Orono that many voters couldn’t identify with.

Poliquin has a few things going for him, however.

One is the inherent advantage of incumbency. He’s had four years of helping constituents resolve problems with the federal government, free mailings paid for by taxpayers and the sort of name recognition that costs millions to match.

Another is that the district has a long history of sticking by its representatives. The last time a 2nd District congressman went down to defeat occurred in 1916, when a Lewiston Democrat, Daniel McGillicuddy, came up short in a re-election bid.

A final factor in his favor is that the district, which is largely rural, mostly white and not especially well-educated, fits the profile of areas most friendly to Trump. Not surprisingly, Trump won the district easily in 2016, earning his sole electoral vote in New England as a result.

Poliquin has always steered clear of Trump. Two years ago, he refused to endorse the New York real estate titan and declined to say whom he actually voted for at the polls. He’s never since cozied up to the president, though he almost always votes with the administration.

Despite Trump declaring the midterms are “a referendum about me,” as he did last week at a Mississippi rally, the 2nd District’s congressional candidates haven’t taken up the banner either for or against him.

“Poliquin has been careful not to stick with national Republican leadership on some issues, such as trade,” Melcher said, and “he has been savvy on those kinds of votes for his district.”

“It would be difficult to paint him as a Trump puppet,” he said.

“Democrats have tried to counter this by saying that he is evasive – not the straight shooter they say Golden is,” Melcher said.

Fried said it’s telling that neither Golden nor Poliquin talks about Trump much, an indication the president remains popular in the district but not so popular that his influence can propel the Republican to victory.

POLARIZING PRESIDENT

Trump is likely also left out by both sides because the president “is so polarizing,” Trautman said. “There’s no middle ground” with him, he said, so candidates are wary of talking about him.

Fried said she thinks Trump has probably declined a little since 2016 in terms of his favorability in the district, probably because “people don’t like the upheaval and the level of chaos” the president creates.

Distaste for what’s happening in Washington, Fried said, may work in Golden’s favor as voters look for “more of a fresh face” to try to bring a more bipartisan approach – an idea Golden may be promoting with his recent ad that shows him drinking beer with Republican state Sen. Tom Saviello, a supporter.

Brendan Conley, a spokesman for Poliquin, dismissed Fried as “a liberal activist” who uses her spare time to attack the congressman. “Her analysis is hardly objective,” he said.

Maisel said the district has grown gradually more conservative for years. Even when Democrats held the seat, he said, each succeeding representative was a bit less liberal than his predecessor.

While Poliquin is “very, very conservative,” Maisel said, it’s possible for a moderate such as Golden to win because he’s from the district, has credibility when it comes to guns because of his military background and speaks like “a person of the people.”

One thing’s for certain: Poliquin and Golden are going to be duking it out daily until the polls close.

And, then, given ranked-choice voting, they may well be waiting for days to find out who won.

If all goes according to plan, voters will be able to cast absentee ballots with their town clerks starting Tuesday, Oct. 9.

Steve Collins can be contacted at:

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