Throughout American history, the political party of the president has almost always taken a hit during midterm elections.
“It’s one of the most ironclad things in American politics,” University of Maine at Farmington political science professor James Melcher said Friday.
If it happens again this time around, one of the casualties could be U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a two-term Republican whose hardscrabble 2nd District in Maine is among the most competitive in the country.
The results of a handful of special elections around the country, including one this week in Ohio, have bolstered Democratic hopes that they can win two dozen or more seats across the country and grab control of the House. Republicans are clearly worried.
Though Poliquin has never tied himself to Trump — declining two years ago even to say whether he would cast his ballot for his party’s presidential candidate — he has voted the White House line 97 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight’s tracking.
Tiffany Bond, an independent candidate in the four-way race in Poliquin’s district, said Friday she doubts Trump will wind up making much difference in the contest because voters are more interested in practical issues than the president’s standing.
Besides, the Portland lawyer said, Republicans and Democrats angling to win the district don’t want to talk about Trump. Neither side opted to comment on his influence on the race.
They’re “totally avoiding it like the plague,” Bond said.
Avoiding the impact of Trump in this year’s re-election battle, though, is going to be a challenge given the turmoil in national politics and repeated calls for voters to choose their legislators based on what they think of the president’s performance.
What experts have seen in the results of special elections this year, including the GOP’s brush with defeat this week in the heavily Republican district in Ohio, is that Democrats in suburban areas are enthusiastic about voting against Trump’s party while voters in more rural areas, where the president is stronger, are staying home in greater numbers than usual.
“The fact that such a strongly Republican district — one that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for Congress since Moby Dick was a guppy — is in play is another sign of this being a tough year for the GOP,” Charles Cook Jr. said Friday in The Cook Political Report.
Melcher said that more than most presidents, Trump has “stirred the pot” and challenged his opponents, which may make midterms even more of a referendum on him than in a normal election cycle.
Poliquin, in his second term, could prove vulnerable. His district, which includes Lewiston and Bangor, is considered by the Cook Partisan Voter Index as an R+2 one, which means his party has a slight natural advantage.
But a small advantage may not be enough in what appears to be a tight race against Democrat Jared Golden, a state lawmaker from Lewiston.
After fretting that the GOP may lose the House, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told The New York Times this week that “if I was a House guy in an R+10 or less seat I’d be getting on the phone and raising money and putting a sign on my dog.”
Graham noted that polls are finding Democrats are more enthusiastic about voting and that women in particular have had it with Trump and his allies.
Some GOP incumbents are trying to make their re-election dependent on local issues and their own performance, steering clear of any notion that voting for them is somehow a vote for Trump. That is certainly Poliquin’s chosen path.
Melcher said he’s kept his distance from the president enough to make a claim that he’s “not a Trump puppet.”
But Trump and at least some of his Republican loyalists are taking a stand that doesn’t help potentially vulnerable House members such as Poliquin who are looking for cover.
The election in November is “a referendum on the Trump presidency,” former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told Fox News host Sean Hannity recently. “This is going to be an up or down vote” on the president, he said.
Trump told a rally in Ohio the other day that he doesn’t buy the suggestion that the party that controls the White House will get hurt in the midterms.
“I say, ‘Why?’” Trump said. “Why would there be a blue wave? I think it could be a red wave.”
Democrats in Maine appear to be in no hurry to shift the focus onto Trump.
State Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said Friday that Golden “isn’t running against Donald Trump — he’s running against Bruce Poliquin and his failed leadership and broken promises.”
Cole Leiter, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said 2nd District voters don’t face a difficult choice as they eye Golden and Poliquin.
Golden said he wouldn’t be surprised if Trump winds up making a campaign stop in the state before Election Day to plug Poliquin and GOP gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody. The president said this week, after all, that wherever he goes, his candidates win.
One thing that may play into Poliquin’s hand is that the Pew Research Center has found that among voters 50 and older nationally, the party division is extremely close. The real advantage Democrats have is among those 18-34, who heavily oppose the GOP.
It is especially pronounced among women who are 34 or younger, where the Republicans are a staggering 44 points behind the Democrats.
But young people are notoriously lackluster voters, showing up at the polls at far lower rates than their elders, especially in midterm elections.
For Trump loyalists, the election is increasingly being portrayed as an almost life-or-death showdown for the president.
Bannon said the Democrats want to win the House “in order to impeach President Trump” and stop his agenda.
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., told a fundraiser for a colleague recently that “we have to keep all these seats. We have to keep the majority. If we do not keep the majority, all of this goes away.”
Trump has made the point as well.
Referring to a Democratic lawmaker from California, Trump said at a recent rally in Michigan that “we have to keep the House because if we listen to Maxine Waters, she’s going around saying, ‘We will impeach him.’”
“We gotta go out and we gotta fight like hell and we gotta win the House and we gotta win the Senate,” the president added.
The two independents in the 2nd District race are Bond and Southwest Harbor educator Will Hoar.
President Donald Trump (File photo)