History is on the side of incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin in the race for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in the November election.

But experts say his once-defeated challenger, Democrat Emily Cain, could benefit from the political shakeup of a high-stakes presidential race that’s expected to boost voter turnout in the general election.

Both candidates are gearing up for a rematch of their 2014 race, in which Poliquin edged Cain by 5 percentage points. And the race is already on track to outpace their last contest as the most expensive congressional race in state history. Neither candidate faced primary challenges in this month’s election.

With no bear-baiting referendum and Republican Gov. Paul LePage absent from this year’s ballot — two issues experts say gave Poliquin an advantage in the 2014 race — the pendulum could swing toward Cain, a former state lawmaker. But the absence of a third-party candidate — in 2014 conservative Blaine Richardson ran as an independent — could drive even more votes to Poliquin.

There are also national implications for the race, which is one of 30 seats that Democrats are targeting in an attempt to regain a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. On June 15, the day after the primary election, the National Republican Congressional Committee released a memo saying the seat is “widely viewed as a top target for both political parties in November,” and that the GOP group is “committed to protecting the seat” held by the freshman congressman.

Earlier this month, Poliquin was at one of his favorite spots in the district, Simones’ Hot Dog Stand in Lewiston, while home from Washington for a weekend. A former state treasurer, Poliquin, 62, who lives in Oakland, said in an interview at Simones’ that with one term in Congress under his belt, he’s better prepared than ever to stand up for the residents of the 2nd District.


“I’m in a position right now to help the 650,000 people I work for,” he said. “You have to get out front. You have to push. Use the authority people give you to fix problems. Don’t hide behind the sofa; get out there and push, and that’s what I do.”

In a recent interview at her Bangor headquarters above a shopping plaza, Cain said she’s running again because “the stakes are higher than ever.”

“The same issues that got me started in 2004 (in the Maine Legislature) — as I looked around and saw too many of my peers having to move away or take jobs that weren’t the best jobs for them — those issues are the same, there’re just more faces,” said Cain, 36, who lives in Orono and served 10 years in the Legislature.


Complicating the race is the presumptive Republican presidential nomination of Donald Trump. Voter turnout in presidential years tends to favor Democrats, according to political science experts, but Maine’s 2nd District is also historically a swing district — one that could conceivably go to either party.

While it’s still too early to tell how the presidential race will shake out, the high-energy, high-interest race is sure to affect congressional races across the country, including in Maine’s 2nd District, said Mark Brewer, professor and interim department chairman of political science at the University of Maine.


“As many people as there are that like him and are motivated to get out and support Trump because they find him so different, I think there’s an equal number of people who find Trump frightening and somewhat appalling, and they are going to be just as motivated to get out and work against Donald Trump becoming president,” Brewer said.

That political risk could cut both ways for Republicans such as Poliquin. Many establishment Republicans have been slow to rally around Trump at the risk of alienating their constituents or fellow party members.

Like many Republicans who have remained tight-lipped over Trump’s presumptive nomination, Poliquin would not say whether he supports Trump or how he sees the presidential race affecting Maine’s 2nd District.

“I’m focused completely on my race and doing work for my constituents,” he said. “The presidential race is the presidential race. It’s something completely different.”

Like Poliquin, Cain said she is not focused on the presidential race, but said it has been an unusual election year so far. “I think the craziness is only going to get worse.”

Also missing from the 2016 election cycle are two factors that may have worked to Poliquin’s advantage in the last race — the presence of LePage on the ticket and a referendum on bear baiting that also drew out more conservative voters.


“I think Congressman Poliquin was quite closely tied to Gov. LePage; and there’s pretty clear evidence there was a high correlation between conservatives, the bear-baiting referendum and votes for LePage and Poliquin,” said Sandy Maisel, chairman of the government department at Colby College and a Democrat.

Also differing in this year’s race is the lack of a third-party candidate. Independent Blaine Richardson, a Belfast conservative who temporarily left the Republican party to run for Congress in 2014, captured 11 percent of the vote that year, compared to 42 percent for Cain and 47 percent for Poliquin.


In a recent interview, Richardson, who is running as a Republican to represent District 97 — Belfast, Waldo and Northport — in the Maine House of Representatives, said he supports Poliquin for re-election. Richardson cited Poliquin’s recent effort to have language included in the national defense spending bill for 2017 that is expected to benefit Maine manufacturing jobs at New Balance shoes, which has factories in Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Norway, all in the 2nd District.

The issue is one that Poliquin cited as some of the most exciting work he has done to date in Washington after jumping on an effort started by his predecessor, Mike Michaud, a Democrat who lost his gubernatorial bid in 2014 to LePage.

The language in the bill, which would require the U.S. Department of Defense to comply with a measure mandating that military recruits are outfitted with American-made athletic shoes, could boost business for New Balance, preserving about 900 jobs in Maine. Identical language was also proposed by U.S. Sen. Angus King in the Senate and is on its way to becoming law.


“I think the chances are high the president will sign it; and then these shoes,” Poliquin said, pausing to point to his own pair of custom-made red, white and blue New Balance sneakers, “these shoes, American-made by 900 of the best shoemakers in the world, we’ll have a shot at supplying them to our troops.”

Poliquin said jobs are the No. 1 thing he wants to focus on if re-elected. While the effort at New Balance is one example of success, others say that at times Poliquin has fallen short in efforts to preserve Maine jobs.

Maine House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, a Skowhegan Democrat who has endorsed Cain, said he was disappointed in Poliquin’s response when Madison Paper Industries closed in May, one of several paper mills that in the 2nd District that has struggled or closed.

“To me, the day Madison Paper Industries closed, that would have been a great day for Bruce to come out and say he opposed the Trans Pacific Partnership,” McCabe said. The proposed international trade agreement would lower tariffs and other barriers to international trade, hurting U.S. businesses like New Balance. “Living in the (2nd District), I think right out of the gate, that’s something you should oppose. I think we need someone that’s willing to make the decision that’s best for the district, not hemming and hawing and not committing.”

Poliquin, along with the rest of Maine’s congressional delegation, successfully lobbied for high tariffs on imported Canadian paper. But “it was too late,” Poliquin said, and the mill announced in March it would close, citing foreign competition as one factor leading to the shutdown.

At the end of April, Poliquin announced his opposition to the trade agreement, saying it took him time to go through its 1,100 pages and come to a conclusion.


“This is a huge agreement — about 1,100 pages — and we determined it would not be helpful for our district,” Poliquin said. “When that’s the case, I came out very clear. If it comes to the floor, I will not vote for it.”


Cain also faces the uphill climb of history: Congressional incumbents for decades have won re-election in the 2nd District. Since the district was created in its present form in 1962, no incumbent member of Congress has lost a re-election campaign there.

Nationally, incumbents tend to have a financial advantage and don’t have to work as hard to get their name and message out to the public, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which reported that in 2014 95 percent of House incumbents were re-elected.

The district represents nearly 80 percent of the state, while the 1st District represents the highly populated Portland area and extreme southern Maine coast. The 2nd District is the largest geographic district east of the Mississippi River, presenting a challenge to non-incumbents because of its demographics, according to Ken Palmer, a retired professor of political science at the University of Maine. “It’s a big area and it takes a long time for a politician to establish a reputation in all these tiny communities and to get known in those communities,” he said. “It’s not like a city where you can quickly build a political organization inside that city. In the 2nd District, you have to go town to town.”

Cain said she plans to pick up where she left off in 2014 after spending last year working as a consultant for the nonprofit Jobs for Maine’s Graduates.


“I knocked on thousands of doors when I ran for the state Legislature, and if I could physically knock on every door in the 2nd District I would, because there’s no better way to connect,” she said. “That personal connection, it matters.”

When it comes to some of the work she’s most proud of during her time in the Legislature, Cain points to balancing the state budget as chairwoman of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, working together with Democrats and Republicans and helping to pass a bill lowering the cost of oral cancer treatments.

“I remember meeting a woman whose sister had been spending thousands of dollars a month to get the pills she needed, and she went to the pharmacy to get her weekly dose and the pharmacist said, ‘That will be $40,’ and in that moment her life was changed,” Cain said. “Lawmaking isn’t supposed to be easy, but if you stick on the side of doing the right thing, ultimately it can get done and you can make a difference in somebody’s life.”

In order for Democrats to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives, they need to win back 30 seats. Maine’s 2nd District has a freshman congressman in a district that often has voted Democratic in the past, both factors that Maisel, the Colby professor, said could help the party.

But Maine is also one of just two states in the U.S. that divides its electoral votes, which means it could be targeted by Trump as a state where he could walk away with one electoral vote even if he doesn’t win the entire state.

The race is already on track to be the most expensive congressional race in Maine history, with Poliquin already out-raising his 2014 campaign by more than $600,000 and Cain raising $1.3 million so far — about $600,000 less than she raised in all of 2014’s election cycle.


Among candidates for Congress, Poliquin ranks as the ninth as getting the most money from the Republican national party, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The campaigns also have raised the 10th-most money among general election candidates nationally.

“Maine’s 2nd Congressional District is going to get a huge amount of resources dumped into it and national attention paid,” said Brewer, of the University of Maine. “I think that will really tell people how important this race is. If you live in the 2nd District, you should recognize its importance to you; but the importance goes beyond the 2nd District. It really does have national political importance and implications.”


Brewer said it’s still too early to say what issues will define the 2nd District race, but the debate about whether to create a national monument in the Mount Katahdin region could be at the forefront.

Poliquin has opposed the designation of 87,000 acres in the region for a national monument — different from a park in that it is protected under the National Antiquities Act and may include more than just land. During a congressional field hearing held at his request, he said it “would take (the land) off-line from productive economic use forever.”

The hearing was criticized by some Democrats who said its outcome was “predetermined” and “scripted” since it was hosted by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, a vocal opponent of the Antiquities Act, under which national monuments are created by either Congress or the president. Only opponents of the monument spoke at the hearing, though dozens of monument supporters and opponents sounded off afterward during a lengthy public forum held later that day by Poliquin.


Cain, who has said she will support the national monument only as part of a larger jobs package for the region, was among Democrats who labeled the congressional field hearing a “sham” and in a news release after the event criticized Poliquin for failing to attend earlier hearings on the issue at meetings organized by Sen. Angus King and attended by National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.

“My priority for the Katahdin region is creating jobs,” Cain said. “It’s ridiculous that Congressman Poliquin called for an additional hearing on this issue while mills were closing and Mainers were losing their livelihoods.”

Poliquin also took heat from Cain and others last month when he was one of seven Republicans who changed his vote on a gay rights measure under pressure from party leaders.

Cain cited the vote as an example of Poliquin’s indecisiveness when it comes to issues affecting the 2nd District.

“This is yet another example of how Bruce says one thing but does another,” Cain said. “He’s done it on trade; he’s done it on the import-export bank; he does it with seniors and with veterans and with college students every single day.”

But even as Cain and Democrats accused him of flip-flopping, Poliquin defended his voting record, saying his arm wasn’t twisted by anyone and that the reason he changed his vote was because additional language was introduced that also protected religious freedoms when the amendment came up for a second vote.


“I will work with anybody,” said Poliquin, who was also one of just three House Republicans to vote against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act last year. “I’ve shown people that — Republicans, Democrats, it doesn’t matter to me as long as they have the same agenda as our families do — which is more jobs and better paying jobs in the 2nd District.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368


Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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