Rep. Jared Golden, left, will face Republican challenger Austin Theriault in November in one of the most closely watched congressional races in the country. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal and Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The stage is set in Maine’s sprawling 2nd Congressional District for an election that will attract national attention and could play a role in the battle for control of Congress.

The race this fall between state Rep. Austin Theriault, who won the Republican nomination last week, and Democratic Rep. Jared Golden is considered to be one of about two dozen toss-up races bound to attract money and political support from across the country as Democrats look to win back the U.S. House of Representatives from the Republicans, who began the session with a slim majority.

“It’s conceivable that whichever party wins control of the House in November could have a single-digit margin,” said Mark Brewer, a professor and chair of political science at the University of Maine. “Most would agree that Maine’s 2nd (District) is, at the very least, in the top 10 – if not in the top five – up-for-grabs district in the entire nation.”

Neither Theriault, a former NASCAR driver, nor Golden, a former U.S. Marine, answered any specific questions about their matchup, including how the campaign could be affected by former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Theriault or Trump’s subsequent felony convictions, or by Golden’s pivot on gun laws after the Lewiston mass shooting.

Golden said in a written statement released through a spokesperson that his top priorities for the summer are spending time with his family and focusing on his work as a congressman.

“I’m not interested in playing the role of political pundit in my own race, and I’m not going to let the media’s eagerness for never-ending campaigns get in the way of getting work done and the simple enjoyment of life,” Golden said. “There will be time for the campaign in the fall and my focus will be on Mainers, not which way the media thinks the wind is blowing.”


Three out of five national election forecasters are classifying the race as a toss-up. The Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Split Ticket say the race is for either side to win, while Elections Daily and Inside Elections have it leaning toward Democrats.

Republicans are bullish about unseating Golden, a 41-year-old Lewiston Democrat who is serving his third term in a district that has twice voted for Trump. The former president’s name will be on the ballot again in November, and his endorsement of the 30-year-old Theriault contributed to the Fort Kent resident’s blowout victory in the primary over state Rep. Mike Soboleski.

But Trump also was recently convicted of 34 felonies for falsifying business records ahead of the 2016 election to hide hush money payments to a porn star with whom he allegedly had an affair. Trump, who will likely appeal the verdict, is scheduled to be sentenced on July 11, just four days before the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee.

Austin Theriault, Republican candidate for the 2nd Congressional District, speaks at the Maine Republican Party convention in April. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Theriault celebrated Trump’s endorsement in the primary, touting it on his campaign signs. But he may already be shifting toward the middle for general election voters. His campaign ignored a question about how Trump’s endorsement would land in the general election, when he will need to draw support from independents to unseat Golden.

The campaign said that Theriault – who was also endorsed in the primary by House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La. – opposes any cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and that he opposes a national ban on abortion even though he cast antiabortion votes while in the Legislature. The campaign played up the candidate’s roots in The County while casting Golden as a typical D.C. politician.

“Austin believes that there are so many issues that unite us as Americans and Mainers,” campaign manager Shawn Roderick said in a statement. “He’s hopeful that people can put aside their partisan differences and all agree that inflation is too high, our economy is too weak, and that we need strong leadership for Maine’s second district. … He’s a commonsense leader who’ll always put Maine First.”


Golden has won two of his three terms in ranked choice elections and with the support of gun-rights groups, which have given him high marks for protecting the Second Amendment.

But that dynamic has shifted, with Golden losing some of that support after reversing his long-standing opposition to an assault weapons ban after the Lewiston mass shooting.

Golden’s approval rating took a hit last fall after he announced his change in position on assault weapons, but it has since rebounded, according to polling released last week.

The Critical Insights on Maine Spring 2024 poll, released Wednesday by Digital Research Inc., pegged Golden’s approval rating at 36%, up 9 percentage points from his fall rating and just 3 percentage points shy of where he was a year ago. But only a third, or 37%, of respondents in the 2nd District supported stricter gun laws, compared with 51% in the 1st District.

The split shows that Golden’s shift could be exploited to peel away at least some support. And the National Republican Campaign Committee, which also endorsed Theriault in the primary, is looking to do just that.

“After years in Washington, (Golden) has flip flopped on the issues most important to Mainers, including the Second Amendment. We look forward to ensuring voters know how he has left Maine behind,” NRCC spokesperson Savannah Viar said in a written statement after Theriault’s primary win. “Austin is a proven conservative fighter who will work to bring back Maine jobs, protect our Second Amendment rights, stand up to China, and hold the radical left accountable.”


The Maine Republican Party is also hitting Golden’s pivot on gun laws.

“(Golden’s) government gun registry plan is a nightmare for law-abiding Mainers,” Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage said.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, takes the stage at Auburn Manufacturing Inc. in July, when President Biden visited to sign an executive order to promote American manufacturing. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

But Democrats and their allies are hoping Golden’s support for abortion rights and his reputation as a moderate will help him retain his seat.

A Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund spokesperson said it’s too soon to discuss election strategy for this fall, but “it would be smart of Rep. Golden and his campaign to lean into this issue and his past record,” citing his support for the Ensuring Access to Abortion Act in 2022 and the Women’s Health Protection Act in 2021 and 2022. He also filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court opposing efforts to restrict access.

“Voters overwhelmingly support safe, legal access to abortion and related care, and this is evidenced by the outcomes of elections across the country and here in Maine post-Dobbs,” spokesperson Lisa Newcomb said. “In addition to continuing to elect candidates whose platforms align with medical science and voter values, voters have affirmed support for measures protecting and expanding access to care and to enshrining rights to care in their state constitutions whenever they have had the opportunity.”

Unlike previous races, this fall’s contest will be a head-to-head matchup between Golden and Theriault, so ranked choice voting won’t be a factor.


Golden won his first congressional term in 2018 in the nation’s first ranked choice election for a federal office. He edged out incumbent Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin by 1 percentage point, or fewer than 4,000 votes.

In 2020, Golden carried the district by 6 percentage points in a two-way race against Republican Dale Crafts. That victory came despite Trump beating President Biden by 6 percentage points in the district and earning one of Maine’s four electoral votes. Trump also carried the 2nd District in 2016 against Hillary Clinton.

Golden was reelected two years ago in a three-way race that included Poliquin and was also decided by ranked choice voting. Golden won by 6 percentage points in an instant runoff after independent Tiffany Bond’s votes were reallocated and shifted mostly to the Democrat.

That win came in a cycle that pundits predicted would produce a red wave for Republicans across the country. The wave never materialized, in part because of backlash against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, upending national protections for abortions and leading to restrictions in Republican-controlled states.

Abortion remains a potent issue at the ballot box, including in some Republican-controlled states. Last year, Ohioans voted to enshrine a right to abortion in the state constitution, while residents of Kansas and Kentucky voted in 2022 against adding antiabortion constitutional amendments.

“I think there’s a lot of Democrats, starting with the president and then going down the ballot, who are hoping (abortion) is going to be the issue that saves their bacon in November,” said Brewer, the UMaine professor.


Theriault and Republicans have been trying to tie Golden with Biden and paint him as a progressive, despite the fact that Golden has voted against Biden’s priorities more than any other House Democrat.

An analysis of congressional votes in 2023 by FiveThirtyEight, a political polling and analysis service, found that Golden voted in support of Biden’s policies only 34% of the time. Golden was the only Democrat to vote with Biden less than half of the time.

They’re also blaming Golden for failing to secure the southern border, even though Republicans, at Trump’s urging, turned against a bill they negotiated with Democrats, which was described as the most conservative border security bill in decades. Golden was part of a bipartisan group that looked to salvage key provisions of the bill.

While Golden is well known throughout the district, Theriault is still introducing himself to voters – especially those who are not NASCAR fans.

National Republican leaders describe him as a “proven conservative fighter,” even though Theriault is just completing his first two-year term in the state Legislature, where he kept a fairly low profile and even broke with his party by supporting “safe injection sites,” where people can use intravenous drugs under medical supervision to reduce harm and prevent overdoses.

Brewer said that Trump’s endorsement and Theriault’s background in auto racing make him “a little bit of a celebrity.” But he said Theriault – whose race car was sponsored and branded by the state of Maine under Republican Gov. Paul LePage at a cost of $50,000 – is still relatively unknown to voters, leaving room for both he and Golden, as well as outside groups, to try to fill that void.

Golden currently has a significant fundraising advantage – one strengthened by the lack of a primary opponent – so he’s best-positioned to fill in those gaps with radio, TV and online ads. Through May 22, Golden had raised $3.7 million – three times more than Theriault – and had $2.4 million on hand – four times more than Theriault.

The race will likely draw significant spending from outside groups, which will also seek to define and attack both candidates.

“What people know about (Theriault), if they know about him at all, is: NASCAR driver, endorsed by Trump,” Brewer said. “It’s definitely a good start, but that still leaves a lot unknown. There’s still a lot of the picture to be filled and who fills that in has the advantage. You never want to let your opponent fill in the picture.”

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