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Democrats Look for a Mainer to Take on Poliquin

Tuesday’s primary will be held under ranked choice voting system

Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin has attracted three Democratic challengers, who will face off in Tuesday’s primary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin has attracted three Democratic challengers, who will face off in Tuesday’s primary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin has proved an elusive target, but with a new candidate this year, Democrats will have another to chance to defeat the well-funded Republican.

Three Democrats are competing in Tuesday’s primary in Maine’s 2nd District, which will use ranked-choice voting for the first time.

Defeating Poliquin isn’t just about picking up a seat that will take Democrats closer to the 23 gains they need to win the House majority. (To that end, Tuesday’s contests in other competitive districts, like Virginia’s 10th, are important too.)

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For Democrats, winning in Maine is also about proving the party can reconnect with white, working-class voters who swung to President Donald Trump in 2016.

But first, they need a candidate.

A new field

Democrats held the 2nd District in northern Maine for 20 years before Poliquin flipped the seat when it opened in 2014. Despite heavy spending against him, he won by an even bigger margin in 2016 when Trump picked off an electoral vote from the district.

The former state treasurer faced the same candidate in both congressional races: former state Sen. Emily Cain, who’s now the executive director of EMILY’s List in Washington. Although Cain lived and worked in the district, and Democratic ads touted her as “one of us,” she wasn’t born in Maine and didn’t grow up there.

In the sprawling blue-collar district that’s home to loggers, farmers and the country’s largest lobster ports, Democrats initially eyed more Maine natives to take on Poliquin this year. The congressman was born and raised in the state but moved away to work in the financial sector before returning to run for office.

Democrats recruited state House Assistant Majority Leader Jared Golden, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Leeds native, a former committee staffer to GOP Sen. Susan Collins, represents part of Lewiston-Auburn, an old mill town on the Androscoggin River that makes up the major population center of the district.

Tuesday’s race looks to be a close contest between Golden and conservationist Lucas St. Clair, who was also born in the 2nd District, spent some time on the West Coast, and recently moved from Maine’s southern metropolis of Portland (in the 1st District) to Hampden in the northern district.

Islesboro bookstore owner and former selectman Craig Olson is also running but has raised and spent significantly less money. Under the ranked-choice voting system, voters make their selections in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority, the last-place finisher is knocked out and his votes are then distributed to his supporters’ second choices. The process repeats until someone wins a majority. Maine voters on Tuesday will also vote on a ballot initiative to decide whether to continue using ranked-choice voting in November.

Lay of the land

Golden has raised the most money and has the backing of organized labor and local political leaders. He’s one of the young veterans running for office who’s been mentored by Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton.

But St. Clair, despite not dipping into his own personal resources, is benefiting from late outside spending that could tip the race in his favor.

The League of Conservation Voters’ political arm on Thursday started running a $100,000 TV ad that says St. Clair will “stand up to Donald Trump’s dangerous policies.” That spot comes on top of $300,000 worth of issue advertising from a nonprofit called the Maine Outdoor Alliance.

The group can’t tell viewers to vote for St. Clair. Instead, it has promoted the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and praised St. Clair for his efforts to push for its creation.

The monument, although still controversial in some parts of the state, is a key part of what St. Clair is running on in the primary. His mother, conservationist and Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby, purchased nearly 100,000 acres of former timberland in the North Woods and donated it to the federal government with the goal of making it a national park.

But her desire to close the area to hunting, snowmobiling and logging initially angered some local residents. Maine’s congressional delegation refused to introduce legislation to make it a national park. St. Clair stepped in, announcing that part of the conserved land would be open to hunting and snowmobiling. He pressed former President Barack Obama to make the land a national monument, which he did in August 2016.

The Maine Outdoor Alliance, which was founded in March, doesn’t have to disclose its donors and cannot coordinate with St. Clair. But as the Bangor Daily News has reported, the group’s only listed officer on documents filed with the Maine secretary of state was also the best man at St. Clair’s wedding. The local press has also highlighted that one of the consultants Quimby hired for the monument campaign — Montana-based Barrett Kaiser — is linked to the firm that bought the airtime for the Maine Outdoor Alliance’s ads.

Golden, who’s backed by End Citizens United, is making the outside spending for St. Clair an issue in the race. His latest TV ad criticizes his opponent for “dark money spending” and touts his own commitment to overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

St. Clair is ending the campaign with a positive spot that plays up his negotiating skills. The Bangor Daily News endorsed him for his work on the monument.

Both candidates have made health care a big part of their campaigns, and Democrats expect it to be a potent message against Poliquin, who voted to repeal the 2010 health care law.

But no matter who wins the primary, unseating Poliquin is still a tall order. No incumbent has lost the 2nd District since 1916. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Leans Republican.

Republicans will likely come after aspects of Golden’s voting record to portray him as too liberal for the district. And while the creation of the monument may play well with liberal primary voters, it would likely be used against St. Clair in a general election. Republicans already attacked him as “a Seattle liberal by way of Portland” when he announced his campaign, even though Poliquin faces residency attacks of his own.

Outside groups spent more than $10 million on the 2nd District in 2016. The race has already attracted outside money this year, with the Democrat-aligned House Majority PAC reserving $1.7 million in airtime and the Republican-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund reserving $2.8 million for the fall.

Golden and St. Clair both ended the pre-primary reporting period with about $100,000 — a drop in the bucket compared to Poliquin’s $2.4 million war chest.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect Congressional Leadership Fund’s latest ad reservations in the district, announced Monday.