NORRIDGEWOCK, Maine — Could towns like this, a tiny crossroads of fewer than 1,300 households — now draped in brilliant autumn foliage colors, by Election Day perhaps resting quietly under a gentle dusting of snow — decide whether Democrats or Republicans rule the House? Or whether subpoena-assisted investigations are mounted against President Donald J. Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh?
Could Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin be defeated by challenger Jared Golden, who left college shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks to join the Marines and who is campaigning with the new moderate Democratic rhetoric full of the words “change” and “service” and “leadership”?
These are some of the mysteries of the 2018 midterm elections, which will deliver an important national message — who’s in control of the House, who runs the Senate — but will be determined in 370 separate elections. None are quite as distinctive as the one being conducted in this Maine congressional district, which delivered a single electoral vote for Trump two years ago; which has many of the distinctive markings of Trump territory; which has been targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as a potential party pick-up; and which is regarded as evenly split between the two parties and candidates.
“Races like this in Maine,” former GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe said in an interview, “often come down to the small towns.”
Maine is an idiosyncratic state by any measure: It has jagged mountains in the west and a rocky seacoast in the east. It is a complex combination, a tourist retreat for the wealthy and the home of many rural poor voters. Its politics have peculiarities that come only with a state that has had governors and now a senator who are Independents — in party name and in inclination. It awards single electoral votes for president from each of its two congressional districts.
The Poliquin-Golden congressional race will be determined by ranked choice voting, a reformist’s dream and a forecaster’s nightmare: Voters will rank their choices for the House among four contestants, the two major-party candidates and two others. If in a close race neither Poliquin nor Golden wins a majority, the election will turn on how many voters select either one of them as their second choice. Predicting the outcome of that is about as difficult as predicting the date of peak color of the maples and elms in Androscoggin County.
So turnout — never as high in midterm elections as in presidential election years — is a big factor here, as it is across the country. But if any place with a contested House race is primed to re-elect a Republican, this one is. Then again, if any place with a contested House race is congenial to a Democratic challenger, this one is, too.
“If Jared Golden can’t win this race in the 2nd district, then no Democrat can win in the 2nd district,” says L. Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Maine’s Colby College. “Golden is tailor-made for this district. His father was a golf-course superintendent, he’s apolitical enough to have worked for (Republican Sen.) Susan Collins, he can handle a rifle, there’s no pretense to him, and he’s running against a guy who made his money on Wall Street.”
But Poliquin, 64, is no pushover. He has bigtime Republican financial support, the advantages of incumbency, worked on veterans’ healthcare issues that are important in this district and makes a credible boast of bipartisanship. His campaign manager refused entreaties for an interview for this column, saying, “We 99.9 percent do not do national media.”
Golden, 36, is one of the new wave of Democratic congressional candidates in the mold of Rep. Conor Lamb, the Pittsburgh-area Democrat and Marine veteran who won a close special election in March.
Listen to Golden, who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, characterizing his campaign: “This election nationally is about a new generation. This is a leadership moment in the country. The message is young veterans of both parties have learned leadership lessons. These are people prone to deflecting credit from themselves, saying when things went right it was the platoon, not them, who did it. They point fingers when things go wrong, pointing them at themselves, taking full responsibility.”
A Republican group has seized on Golden’s tattoos (“Liberal Jared Golden”), with the Democrat responding with a television spot putting the challenger on a lobster boat (“It’s time for Maine to show Washington what needs to go overboard,” citing “career politicians like Bruce Poliquin”). Nobody said this race didn’t have its own local character, though a Washington Post survey of this and 68 other competitive districts, mostly held by GOP candidates, showed that voters narrowly preferred Democratic candidates.
Despite Trump’s capture of that unusual single electoral vote, hardly anyone is talking about the president here. “I’m on the road a lot,” says Golden. “People don’t ask me about him.” Here it is tattoos and lobster boats and — both candidates hope, in their own way — another expression of independence from fiercely independent Maine.
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David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.