As the battle to wrest control of our nation’s capitol from Donald Trump heats up across the country, more and more Americans are turning their gaze toward northern Maine. Some, including the New York Times, are even going so far as to call the race for Maine’s second congressional district the closest federal race in all of New England this year.
The race pits challenger Jared Golden, a young Democratic upstart and former US Marine, against Bruce Poliquin, a staunch Republican and former Wall Street financier who has held the seat for the last two terms.
Blanketed in pine forests that stretch for hundreds of miles, interspersed with old mill towns and a few formerly industrial small cities, Maine’s second district covers nearly 80% of the state’s land area. These days, it’s a relatively hardscrabble place, with many of its communities growing increasingly gray as many of the district’s young people seek better economic opportunities farther south.
Until fairly recently, the district was a Democratic stronghold of blue collar union members, electing Mike Michaud, a Democratic former union paper mill worker, to six terms in Congress, starting in 2003, and siding narrowly with Obama, in both 2008 and 2012. In the last few years, however, things have changed, with the district electing Poliquin, a Republican, in 2014 (after Michaud vacated the seat), and then swinging even harder to the right in 2016, supporting Trump by around ten points. Today it is the only GOP-held congressional district in New England.
But, although nobody has been able to successfully unseat an incumbent from the seat since 1916, Poliquin might just be beatable.
Poliquin grew up in Waterville, the son of hard-working Franco-American parents (his mom was a nurse and his father was a school principal), but left the state as a teenager to attend the prestigious Philips Academy in Andover, Mass before receiving a scholarship to go to college at Harvard. From there, he was onto Wall Street, where he spent three decades as a high-end money manager, earning a personal fortune currently valued at around $12M, making him the 17th wealthiest member of the House.
Poliquin’s first foray into Maine politics came in 2010 when he spent over $700k of his own money to run in the Maine gubernatorial primary against LePage, only to come in sixth out of seven candidates. After serving the next two years as State Treasurer, Poliquin returned to electoral politics in 2014, this time as a candidate for Congress.
Emily Cain, his opponent in the race (and again two years later), didn’t offer much of a resistance.
Originally from Kentucky, Cain’s family didn’t move to Maine until 1998, when she was 18. Cain attended U Maine, graduating with a BA in Music Education, and went on to receive her Masters from Harvard, before returning to Orono shortly thereafter. Once back in Maine, the 24-year-old quickly won a seat in the Maine House and took a job helping to coordinate fundraising for U Maine. By the time she ran for Congress, ten years later, Cain had a full decade of operating fundraisers for both the Maine Democratic Party and the university system under her belt, and her connections paid off, enabling her to raise almost $2M, well over $250,000 more than Poliquin collected.
But there’s a big difference between being able to operate effectively in Democratic Party fundraising circles and being able to genuinely resonate on an emotional level with rural, working class voters. Poliquin may not have been offering his supporters the sun, the moon and the stars, but Mainers are cynical. A lot of folks were growing increasingly frustrated with the Obama administration’s failure to do much to improve their quality of life, and electing Poliquin seemed like a simple way to keep taxes down and help the businesses driving Maine’s economy. For many, that was enough.
When the votes came in on election night in 2014, Cain lost by five points. In 2016, she ran again, losing this time by ten points. Today, Cain is back to the work she’s best at, raising money, now as the Executive Director of EMILY’s List, a massive political action committee that raised almost $60M to support pro-choice Democratic women candidates in 2016.
Golden is originally a farm boy from Leeds, a small town outside Lewiston. After attending the local public schools and serving two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine, Golden came home and ended up receiving a scholarship to enroll at Bates College, which he graduated from in 2011.
At an annual cost of over $48,000, just for tuition, it couldn’t have been easy for a working-class townie like Golden to fit in at Bates, especially given that he was eight years older, and substantially more grizzled (after two combat tours), than the other freshmen. But, based on the conversations I’ve had with Golden over the last year as I’ve gotten to know him better, I’m sure he had a great sense of humor about it all and worked as hard as he could to get the most out of the situation. After he graduated, Golden crossed the aisle, going to DC to work for Susan Collins for a year before coming back to Maine in 2014 and running to represent Lewiston in the State House as a Democrat. A nearly instant rising star, by his second term, Golden had been elected the Assistant Majority Leader of the House.
As I see it, Golden’s the best of both worlds. He’s an understated combat veteran with a proven ability to work across the aisle, but he’s also genuinely progressive, unafraid to come out strongly in support of Medicare for All, the universal, public healthcare system that Bernie Sanders has been advocating for.
At a time when people on all sides are starting to feel exhausted and overwhelmed, Golden’s an old-fashioned populist who can handle himself in a tough fight, and he has the kind of integrity and charming vigor that can really turn out and excite people. Golden’s lovable. And these days especially, when hope seems in troublingly short supply, that matters a lot.
As Golden is quick to say, he’s not running against Trump – he’s running to stand up for the people of northern Maine. When you talk to him, it’s immediately apparent that our nation’s “opiate crisis” and “failing healthcare system” aren’t just talking points to him. They’re painfully real things that have crushed the life out of too many of the people he’s loved.
Unlike much of what I write about, this race for Maine’s second congressional district isn’t just some local controversy. Golden isn’t some underdog left-wing long shot. This race is the real deal. It’s a big, but winnable, fight in our own backyard. If you aren’t paying attention, you should be. This matters.