Maine’s U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin is likely to have galvanized angry opponents but not eroded much support among voters who twice have elected him to office, following his embrace Thursday of the controversial American Health Care Act narrowly passed by House Republicans.

That’s according to political observers who also caution that the effect of the bill and Poliquin’s support will depend largely on the final outcome of the legislation — the Senate is expected to make changes, perhaps significantly — and that may have a different effect on constituents and the 2018 mid-term election.

“If what has been said about the legislation is true, that this is going to benefit younger, healthier, wealthier Americans, and that older, sicker, poorer Americans are going to do worse (than they would do) under Obamacare, then I can’t imagine that works out well for the 2nd Congressional District in Maine,” said Mark Brewer, political science professor at the University of Maine in Orono. “If this disadvantages older, sicker, poorer people, that describes a big chunk of the second district.”

Poliquin, a Republican who represents Maine’s 2nd District, has long said he opposed former President Barack Obama’s signature 2010 legislation, the Affordable Care Act, but it wasn’t until a half-hour before Thursday’s House vote that Poliquin finally announced his support after dodging earlier questions from reporters. During the call, Poliquin sought to minimize the bill’s effect in his home state, incorrectly saying that it would affect only 7 percent of Mainers.

Poliquin spokesman Brendan Conley said Friday that the congressman did read the health care bill before voting to support it, even as at least three House Republicans have said they did not have time to read the entire bill. The original GOP bill is 126 pages and there were 20 pages of changes added before passage by the House.

“The Congressman has been closely studying this bill and following it as it has undergone changes,” Conley said via email.

Asked whether Poliquin plans any town hall-style meetings in the 2nd District or other means of explaining the bill to constituents, Conley said via email, “The Congressman has been actively hearing from ALL 664,000+ constituents of Maine’s 2nd District and will continue to do so and work to best serve ALL 664,000+ Mainers he represents.”

It’s possible that Poliquin and “a fair number of House Republicans might pay for this one,” Brewer said. Political strategists say dozens of House Republicans who supported the bill could be ousted in the fall of 2018, putting control of the House back within reach of Democrats.

Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said Poliquin’s vote has “inspired fierce anger from many of his constituents” and that if some version of the bill becomes law, “many of them will be motivated to work against him, and it gives a potential opponent a clear issue people care about to run on.”

Even so, Melcher also sees reasons why Poliquin’s vote may not carry a political price. First, Melcher doesn’t think it’s likely the Senate will pass a bill that contains the most controversial aspects of the House version. Second, he hasn’t seen any signs that Poliquin’s core supporters are upset with the congressman’s vote — in fact, it’s likely that most of those voters strongly opposed Obamacare.

Poliquin might have faced a greater political risk had he not voted for the GOP health bill, Melcher said.

“If the 2nd District makes out badly after health care reform, that could definitely hurt him,” Melcher said Friday. “But so long as the people most upset with him are people who’d never vote for him anyway, I do not think he’s hurt yet. The only thing that might hurt him, short-run, is the perception that he hems and haws too much.”

It’s likely that all Republicans across the country in marginal seats will be at risk for their vote supporting the bill, but the question is how big that political price may be, said L. Sandy Maisel, the Goldfarb family distinguished professor of American government at Colby College in Waterville.

“We do not know how many will go the other way, but it will be some,” Maisel said. “The hospitals in the 2nd Congressional District and the thousands of people who will lose health care coverage are the big losers in this bill. In my view, it will not pass the Senate in its present form because of that — and senators like Susan Collins will work to assure that. What Congressman Poliquin will be stuck with is defending his vote when Senator Collins will vote for a very different bill.”

RURAL CONCERNS

Health care advocates in Maine say if the House bill became law, it would drive up insurance costs, cause many people to lose coverage and create turmoil in the nation’s health care system. About 80,000 Mainers have health insurance through the ACA.

Experts say the GOP health bill could strip health insurance from millions of people; cause skyrocketing premiums for older, rural Mainers; and slash Medicaid, among other changes.

Older Mainers in rural areas could see their premiums increase up to seven times what they’re currently paying under Obamacare, going from about $200 to $300 per month to about $1,300 per month, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Health experts said the American Health Care Act would make health coverage worse on many fronts, including undermining ACA protections for patients with pre-existing conditions and weakening requirements that certain health benefits be covered, such as therapy for mental illness and substance use disorders.

Hospitals in the rural 2nd District — already facing budget holes and staff cuts — may endure increased expenses if people seeking care can’t pay for services.

Officials at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor declined to comment Friday on the health bill, deferring instead to the Maine Hospital Association. EMMC laid off 35 employees last summer as part of an effort to close a $3 million budget gap. Also last year, the Franklin Community Health Network, which includes Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, has announced a cost-reduction plan that includes 22 layoffs among 40 eliminated full-time positions and a salary freeze for employees. A Franklin Memorial spokeswoman did not respond immediately to a request for comment Friday.

Steven Michaud, president of the hospital association, said the group opposes the House bill because it threatens an “already fragile safety net” in rural Maine, where hospitals are closing departments and scaling back services. The group fears that if hospitals have to treat higher numbers of uninsured people, that drives up insurance rates for those with private insurance, because hospitals are legally required to treat everyone regardless of ability to pay.

That’s of particular significance in Maine’s mostly rural 2nd District, where the economy has been hit hard with recent mill closures, cuts to hospital staffs and the opioid drug crisis.

In March, Poliquin said he had met with Trump and urged him and House leadership to push for increased benefits for those nearing retirement and families living in rural areas as part of the evolving legislation.

In a conference call Thursday with reporters, Poliquin announced his support of the bill a half-hour before the vote, saying the bill represents the best parts of several previous attempts at reform and “this affects only the 7 percent of Maine residents who have Obamacare policies.” He repeated the same point multiple times about the small percentage of Mainers who would be affected — the roughly 80,000 people in the state who have insurance under the Affordable Care Act. But the claim isn’t true, because the bill includes cuts to some Medicaid programs for low-income people, and Maine had about 270,000 people enrolled in the program, known as MaineCare; and there’s also a provision in the bill that would allow states to let insurers charge more for customers with pre-existing medical conditions.

POLITICAL PRICE?

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took aim at Poliquin on Tuesday before the health bill vote, saying its Republican counterpart had listed Poliquin among members of Congress in its Patriot Program, which Democrats called a “most vulnerable list.” The national group blasted Poliquin again on Thursday after the vote.

“Make no mistake about it: Poliquin must face the music, look his constituents in the eye, and answer for the mess he created,” DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan said in a statement. “There is no question that this bill will cause incredible pain for hardworking Americans, particularly those fighting to make ends meet, and this vote will haunt Poliquin through Election Day.”

Indeed, Poliquin’s recent efforts to avoid questions about his stance on the bill may provide further ammunition for critics who charge that Poliquin is prioritizing his party over constituents.

Melcher, the UMF professor, cited a story by Slate that described how Poliquin on Tuesday nearly went into a women’s restroom as he brushed past a journalist who asked about the congressman’s stance on the bill. But that criticism may not be enough to threaten the incumbent congressman’s prospects of re-election in 2018.

“The Democrats on the House floor that mocked the R’s after the vote by singing, ‘Hey, hey, hey, goodbye’ surely think R’s in competitive districts will pay with their seats. But I think that’s not remotely proved yet,” Melcher said. “The 2018 race will be competitive in all likelihood, but I think Poliquin still has a good chance of being re-elected.”

Poliquin’s 2nd District predecessor, former Democratic moderate Mike Michaud, didn’t pay a political price for his eventual support of Affordable Care Act signed into law by Obama. In November 2009, the House narrowly approved the sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system, known as Obamacare, and Michaud was among the final holdouts who gave the legislation a crucial vote of support following a meeting with Obama.

The following year — even after widespread conservative backlash against the law that gave rise to the Tea Party movement and swept Republicans into control of the House — Michaud easily won re-election to a fifth term. He defeated Republican business owner and U.S. Army veteran Jason Levesque, 55 percent to 45 percent, in the 2010 race. Michaud was re-elected again in 2012, that time by a 16-percentage point margin, against Kevin Raye.

Poliquin beat Democrat Emily Cain in the 2016 race to win a second term by a comfortable margin, 55 percent to 45 percent, after the costliest U.S. House race in Maine history. In addition, Trump won the 2nd District majority vote, splitting the state’s four electoral votes for the first time in Maine history.

A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram poll released a few weeks before the 2016 election found that Poliquin held a nine-pecentage-point advantage among independents, a crucial voting block in the district. Also in the poll, the vast majority of respondents said they weren’t swayed one way or the other by Poliquin refusing to say whether he endorsed Trump.

POSITION EXPLANATION

Poliquin’s penchant, though, for holding scripted appearances with business owners and officials where he refuses to talk about non-event matters — instead of open town hall meetings on a range of topics as other members of Congress have done — has fed a perception that Poliquin isn’t forthcoming on issues, according to Brewer, the UMaine professor.

Ellen Grunblatt, 66, of Jay, a retired physician, was among a liberal-leaning group from Franklin County that attempted throughout March and April to get Poliquin to attend a town hall-style meeting to talk about issues before a crowd. The group ultimately held the meeting without Poliquin on April 17 at the Olsen Student Center at the University of Maine at Farmington, drawing about 50 people.

“I think he’s been very consistent in telling us he is not interested in meeting with people who he does not consider to be community leaders or job creators. He just kind of wrote us off,” Grunblatt said Friday.

She doesn’t expect he’ll hold any town halls in the aftermath of the health bill vote.

“My guess he expects the protection of the party since he hewed to the party line in spite of the fact many of his constituents will suffer if this passes,” Grunblatt said. “I certainly feel he should explain his position on the bill.”

Poliquin, in his statement Thursday, suggested he felt Congress needed to start taking some kind of action because “Obamacare is failing” and lawmakers “must act to rescue American families.”

He also acknowledged that the Senate would likely make changes, which he hopes make the legislation “stronger and better.”

“This simply moves this issue on to the Senate,” Poliquin said.

Staff writer Colin Ellis contributed reporting.

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