The race for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District intensified Thursday as incumbent U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, forcefully defended his voting record on a measure prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination even as Democrats assailed his intentions and accused him flip-flopping on the hot-button issue.

The U.S. House reversed course late Wednesday and approved a measure aimed at upholding an executive order that bars discrimination against LGBT employees by federal contractors. More than 40 Republicans, including Poliquin, helped Democrats power the gay rights measure through, despite the opposition of GOP conservatives who dominate the House.

But Democrats and their congressional candidate, Emily Cain, pounced on Poliquin for casting the vote after previously voting against a similar measure in a controversial decision on the House floor last week. Poliquin was one of seven Republican lawmakers who switched their votes under pressure from House leaders in an initial vote last week on the anti-discrimination measure that was offered by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-New York.

That incident has escalated the political feud between Poliquin and Cain as the issue of LGBT rights takes center stage nationally ahead of the November election. Poliquin defeated Cain in the 2014 election, putting the 2nd District seat in the Republican column for the first time in 20 years.

Poliquin, in an interview Thursday, pushed back against the criticism and said he’s been consistent on the issue “since day one.”

“I’ve always been against discrimination against anybody, at any place and any time,” Poliquin said.

Cain, in a Thursday interview, accused Poliquin of trying to “have it both ways” with his votes, which also “undermines the foundation and trust elected officials should be able to be counted on for.

“Either he is against discrimination and his leadership forced him to take that vote, or it was actually how he felt,” Cain said. “This is yet another example of how Bruce says one thing but does another.”

Maine Democratic Party officials and LGBT advocates piled on as well, holding a news conference Thursday morning outside Poliquin’s Bangor office to push the theme of Poliquin performing a “flip-flop” on the measure.

Maloney’s amendment prevents government contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees and was introduced last week as part of a military and defense spending bill.

It was defeated by one vote after House GOP leaders controversially extended the amount of time allowed for the vote during which seven Republican lawmakers, including Poliquin, changed their votes. Democrats loudly protested, saying the seven GOP legislators had been arm-twisted into changing their votes.

“There are reports that my arm was twisted to vote a certain way, which is absolutely false,” Poliquin said. “I was there; nobody approached me. Absolutely nobody tried to influence my vote.”

The 223-195 vote Wednesday night, however, reversed last week’s decision on the gay rights measure. Maloney, an openly gay lawmaker, reintroduced his bill as part of an energy and water spending bill. The Associated Press reported that this time GOP leaders did not try to stop colleagues from voting as they wanted.

“There was a lot of confusion on the floor, but I voted exactly the way I intended to vote,” Poliquin said Thursday.

The measure would prohibit agencies funded by the bill to award taxpayer dollars to federal contractors that violate President Barack Obama’s executive order barring discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“It says you do not take taxpayer dollars and fire people just for being gay,” Maloney told the Associated Press.

Jim Melcher, a University of Maine at Farmington political science professor, said the issue poses complicated considerations for both Poliquin and Cain.

“It becomes less important as a specific issue, on substance, than how Democrats are trying to frame the issue, that he (Poliquin) is someone who is not trustworthy,” Melcher said. “But a lot of Poliquin supporters are sympathetic to his argument, and he’s been really deft at siding with his district against his party.”

More important, Melcher thinks, will be how the issue plays into each campaigns’ fundraising pitches.

“This is going to be one of the most expensive races in the history of this state,” he said. “I could see this used in fundraising, running very targeted appeals.”

Earlier, the House voted 227-192 to block several federal agencies from retaliating against North Carolina over its law requiring transgender people to use the bathroom of their original sex. That amendment, by Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-North Carolina, came in response to warnings from the Obama administration that it may take away federal money from North Carolina in response to the state law that blocks certain protections for gay people.

The North Carolina law was passed after the city of Charlotte passed an ordinance allowing transgender people to use restrooms of their chosen gender identity. The state law went further to take away federal protections for gays, putting the state at risk of losing a variety of federal funds.

Poliquin said that his reason for supporting Maloney’s measure the second time around was because it was changed to include language that would also ensure religious organizations were not discriminated against, even though that language was not adopted until after the vote on the Maloney amendment. Poliquin also voted in support of a separate amendment to the same bill, introduced by Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama, stipulating that government not discriminate against religious organizations or Americans with disabilities.

Maloney told The Washington Post that he did not see his amendment as being in conflict with rights of religious organizations.

“That’s his opinion. He’s wrong,” Poliquin said of Maloney. “If you look at the anti-discrimination laws that we have, they’re very clear. You don’t discriminate against men, women, what sexual preferences you have, what ethnicity you have and so forth. However, if you are a religious organization, you have an exception.”

However, some religious officials who gathered Thursday morning with Maine Democrats took exception with Poliquin’s reasoning, saying religion shouldn’t be used as a cover for discrimination.

“As a pastor and as a gay man, I do not frame this discussion in political terms but in moral terms,” the Rev. Dr. Mark Doty said in a statement released by Maine Democrats. “All American citizens — LGBT included — have the right to feel protected by elected officials and by the legislation they create.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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