Perhaps U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin put what’s at stake in his re-election bid as succinctly as anyone.

Behind closed doors, the two-term Republican told a conservative gathering in 2017 there are “two dozen swing districts in the country” that will determine which party controls the U.S. House after the Nov. 6 election.

The one he’s represented since 2015 – Maine’s sprawling 2nd District with its iconic lobsters and loggers – is among them.

If “we win them, we are in the majority (and) we can advance the agenda,” the 65-year-old Poliquin told the crowd in a secretly recorded speech.

Lose, though, and the Democrats take over – an outcome eagerly sought by Lewiston’s Jared Golden, 36, who has run a tough challenge against the incumbent.

Whether the Republicans can hold the district is up in the air. Poliquin and Golden are neck and neck in the polls.

“This one’s right in the margin and it’s going to be tight,” Golden said recently.

It’s possible the outcome of Poliquin’s race could make the difference between continued Republican control of both the White House and Congress or a split government that would hit the brakes on many of the GOP’s plans.

“That’s just the reality of the numbers, so we’ve got to be incredibly careful,” Poliquin said last year, explaining that he dodges the news media in part because “it would be stupid for me to engage the national media to give them and everybody else the ammunition they need and we would lose this seat.”

With victory possible for either party, money has flowed into the district at an astounding pace, with more than $18 million already laid out for everything from television commercials to get-out-the-vote efforts.

All of that cash has landed the district at the top of the list for campaign advertising on television in October and among the costliest contests in the nation. Not surprisingly, a lot of the commercials have been vicious and often untrue.

Golden said he deals with the barrage of negativity by tuning out the ads and making sure he hits the weight room now and again. Poliquin, who endured much the same the past two elections, is more used to it.

How it all plays out on Election Day is the big unknown. The only thing that’s clear is that the 2nd District is a place where both parties have a shot.

Held by Democrats for years until Poliquin snatched the seat in 2014 after Democrat Mike Michaud stepped down in an unsuccessful bid to win the governor’s job, it’s a district that went heavily for Donald Trump two years ago, but backed Barack Obama two times before that.

Among the six counties in the district that backed both Obama and Trump were Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford. Only Piscataquis County has been solidly Republican.

As the largest district east of the Mississippi and one of the most rural in America, the 2nd contains a hardscrabble swath of great beauty and sometimes deep poverty.

It’s a place chock-full of blue-collar workers that’s also among the spots hardest hit by opioids. Its population is one of the oldest of any district, with many military veterans and a sort of rugged independence that’s long made its residents skeptical of government.

In short, both its character and its record show that it’s up for grabs.

It appears that ranked-choice voting may make the difference. In a first-time experiment in American politics, the ballots cast for independents Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar, who appear to be trailing by wide margins, would be redistributed to voters’ second- or third-place picks.

The winner will be whoever tops 50 percent of the overall vote first – an outcome that may differ from the leader after a first round of counting if the No. 1 candidate falls short of a majority. Poliquin has hinted that he might head to court if he wins a plurality but winds up in second place.

As an incumbent, Poliquin has been in the race since the moment he defeated Democrat Emily Cain for the second time two years ago.

Golden entered the contest in the summer of 2017, joining a crowded field of Democrats vying for their party’s backing for the right to take on Poliquin.

By the time the primary rolled around in June, only three of the contenders were still jostling for the lead. Golden defeated environmental activist Lucas St. Clair and Islesboro bookstore owner Craig Olson to snatch the ballot line for his party.

Ever since, Poliquin and Golden have clashed on issues while scrambling behind the scenes for the money considered necessary to run a competitive race.

Bond’s unusual request for supporters to buy from Maine businesses or donate to charity or classroom projects in her name rather than give her campaign cash brought her some notice on social media. But there’s little indication she’s succeeded in luring many voters.

She is the only candidate who showed up for every debate. By the time Maine Public held its recently, Bond alone made an appearance.

Poliquin has tried to hammer home the idea that Golden is “a young, radical socialist” who can’t be trusted to keep the economy humming and would undermine America’s health care system by supporting universal coverage.

Golden said Congress needs to stop pointing fingers and calling names. He said members need to work together across party lines to deal with pressing issues, especially ensuring affordable health care for everyone.

Bond and Hoar both said politicians need to stop bickering and start addressing the issues.

All four of the candidates are college graduates. Poliquin got his degree at Harvard University while Golden earned his at Bates College after returning from two combat tours as a U.S. Marine.

Poliquin’s three challengers are married. He is a widower whose first wife drowned. He divorced his second wife in 2009 after a six-year marriage and remains single.

Poliquin worked in finance for 35 years before entering politics almost a decade ago. Golden is a state representative. Bond is a family law attorney. Hoar is an educator.

Voters will decide Tuesday whether to reward Poliquin with a third term.

The incumbent told listeners on South Portland radio station WGAN on Friday that the choice they face in his race is “black and white” and urged everyone “to get to the polls because it is a very clear choice between me and my opponent.”

That’s something on which Golden and Poliquin agree.

Steven Collins can be contacted at:

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