LEWISTON — The nation’s top political prognosticator said Tuesday the scorching-hot battle for Maine’s 2nd District congressional seat is “one of the top races in the country” this fall, and among a handful of bellwether contests that will decide control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Charlie Cook, the 64-year-old Louisiana native who is looked on by political junkies as a solid, nonpartisan analyst, said based on the polls he has seen, the re-election bid by Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin could be in trouble.
Speaking at the Muskie Archives at Bates College, Cook said the race is “really, really, really close,” and that is why so much money is pouring into Maine to try to influence its outcome.
Cook said a clear Democratic wave across the country spurred by disapproval of President Donald Trump is working against Poliquin.
Cook also said Democratic challenger Jared Golden does not fit his party’s stereotypes. He said Golden, a military veteran from Lewiston, might have the best chance to defeat the two-term GOP incumbent.
Addressing a crowd of more than 100, Cook laid out the case for what he sees as a wave of support for Democrats, who have about a 70 percent chance of seizing control of the 435-member House of Representatives.
Democrats need to win at least 23 districts now held by Republicans.
Cook said he thinks about 32 districts are going to switch parties, more than enough to oust the GOP from leadership of the House — especially if Democrats can tone down talk of impeachment that might stir more Republican voters to show up at the polls Nov. 6.
Because Democrats have so many more seats up for grabs in the Senate, Cook gives the GOP a 65 percent chance of hanging on to its majority there.
Cook laid out a case that midterm elections typically hurt the party that holds the White House, especially if the president’s approval rating is less than 50 percent. Trump’s approval rating has never climbed higher than 45 percent, and normally hovers at about 40 percent across a range of polls, he said.
As a close watcher of both polls and elections, Cook said he sees a nation that is “politically more divided today perhaps than we have been since Reconstruction,” the period that followed the Civil War when Republicans tried to enforce civil rights in the South.
“There are just incredible, incredible divisions,” most of them growing for years before Trump came onto the scene, Cook said.
One consequence is that both parties have shifted away from the middle, where most Americans actually reside politically, he said.
Cook bemoaned the absence today of politicians such as former Maine U.S. Sen. Bill Cohen, a Republican who is “one of my favorite people in Washington” because of his willingness to work with members of both parties.
Cook said the country has sharp divides based on race, geography, religion and more, including the strong support of women for Democrats.
One of the problems, he said, is that Democrats are generally concentrated in urban and suburban areas while Republicans are “everywhere else,” a situation that gives the GOP disproportionate power because its opponents are packed into fewer districts.
Even so, Cook said, Republicans hold so many offices in Congress and at statehouses across the land that they are “hugely exposed” today in a way they have not been since the 1920s.
That is one reason “a whole lot” is on the line in this year’s election, Cook said.
Cook said there is a Democratic “tidal wave” about to smash into the GOP’s seawall. And strong as the Republican line of defense might be, he said, he thinks the Democrats are going to wash over that wall.
History shows that midterm elections rarely support a sitting president, in part because voters who are “either angry or afraid” of what is happening are the ones most likely to turn out on Election Day, Cook said.
Those who are “madder than hell” — such as the Tea Party backers in 2010 — are apt to vote, he said. Those who are more apathetic are less likely to bother, Cook said.
Cook said private and public polling is showing that Democrats have a substantial lead in a generic face-off for Congress and in many close districts.
For Republicans, he said, the message is clear: “Danger, danger, danger.”
“It’s going to be an ugly year for them,” Cook said.
The only real question, he said, is just how bad it will be.
Cook, who had worked for years in politics, began his nonpartisan political newsletter in 1984, running it at first as a one-man shop from his basement.
His Cook Political Report today has a full-time staff of six, and reaches a large audience of political professionals who value its analysis and forecasting.
Cook’s report is one of a handful on which Democrats and Republicans rely to get a read on what is happening in elections across the country.
Political analyst Charlie Cook. (Photo provided by Chet Susslin)