One clear lesson from Maine’s political history is that it’s awfully hard to knock a 2nd District congressman out of office.
Nobody’s done it, after all, since 1916.
Since that September day more than a century ago when Democrat Daniel McGillicuddy of Lewiston went down to defeat, a dozen men and women who held the seat have sought re-election, some many times.
Not one came up short on Election Day.
It’s not that the district is a lock for one party or the other. In that time, there have been seven Republicans and five Democrats who ran for re-election.
Along the way, three GOP incumbents didn’t try to hang on to their seats after serving a single term in Washington, leaving the district wide open for a newcomer.
The district got a new representative in the U.S. House throughout the entire 102-year period only when voters couldn’t pick someone who already had an office on Capitol Hill.
That doesn’t mean that U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, the Republican who has held the 2nd District seat since 2014, can’t be sent packing. It is merely an indication that it won’t be easy for his challengers, Democrat Jared Golden of Lewiston and independents Tiffany Bond of Portland and Will Hoard of Southwest Harbor.
Given that the district is considered a toss-up at best, they already know the odds are against them.
Still, it helps Poliquin to have history on his side, which is one reason his campaign consultant, Brent Littlefield, mentions it often.
When McGillicuddy ran in 1916, history offered him no comfort.
When the former Lewiston mayor grabbed the seat in 1910, he snatched it from Republican John Swasey, a Canton lawyer who had fought in the Civil War and compiled a lengthy record of public service in Augusta before heading to the nation’s capital.
In 1916, McGillicuddy and the Democrats in Maine generally faced a tidal wave of opposition that ultimately swept the GOP into office in part on the strength of public disgust with the government’s effort to lower trade barriers.
The Protectionist, a monthly magazine, said national issues handed the state to Republicans at all levels — an assessment the Democratic Party shared.
Even so, McGillicuddy lost by only a narrow margin. Exactly why he fell short was hard to say then and impossible now.
The New York Times called McGillicuddy, the only Democrat among the four members of Congress that Maine then possessed, “a man of ability” who “has always been friendly to the labor interests.”
He was a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and a hard campaigner.
The paper said in a post-mortem of his defeat that working people had ensured his re-election in the past “even when the Democrats lost in the rest of the state.”
A chief reason, The Protectionist said, was concern by “Maine labor and the Maine farmer” about the lower tariff.
Voters punished Democrats, including McGillicuddy, for supporting the Revenue Act of 1913 that lowered protectionist tariffs sharply and reinstituted a federal income tax to make up for the lost revenue.
“The men in the mills and factories and on the farms of Maine do not want a free tariff,” the magazine said. “They have demanded in no uncertain tones the restoration of the protective policy.”
The Times said the results of the Sept. 11, 1916, general election — Maine at the time voted in September instead of November — showed that labor is not a monolith.
“The mechanics of Bath and Auburn voted on the issues of the day, just as did the farmers of Oxford County,” it noted.
The paper said the results vanquished the notion that laboring people were more interested in their own issues — including a national push for an 8-hour workday — than they were in the community’s well-being.
A referendum to limit the work week to 54 hours won the support of Mainers that year by a 4-to-1 ratio at the same time they favored the GOP.
State Republican Party Chairman Frank Ham attributed his party’s sweeping success at the polls to hard work by party loyalists and “the principles laid down in the Republican platforms, both state and national” that promised to boost “the social, business and economic life of the people of Maine.”
Hailing the win as “the most notable in the history of Maine,” Ham promised the GOP would steer clear of radical proposals.
Since McGillicuddy’s defeat, every incumbent who sought re-election in the district managed to come out on top, starting with the man who beat him, Republican Wallace White of Lewiston, and including one lawmaker who became a legend, Margaret Chase Smith.
In recent decades, Republicans William Cohen and Olympia Snowe have represented the district and successfully held the seat against challengers. So, too, did Democrats such as William Hathaway, John Baldacci and Mike Michaud.
McGillicuddy didn’t slink away after his defeat.
He tried to win back his seat two years later in 1918. He lost again.
After that, he served on the Democratic National Committee until 1932, still prominent enough to receive an ancient key from Boston Mayor James Michael Curley that someone found on the battlefield at Lexington.
Until his death in 1936, McGillicuddy practiced law in Lewiston from his office in the turret of a four-story Victorian building he erected in 1895 at Lisbon and Ash streets that still stands.
Poliquin, born in Waterville 17 years after McGillicuddy’s death, won the sprawling district in 2014 after Michaud gave up the seat. He defeated Democrat Emily Cain to claim victory and then crushed her at the polls two years ago when she sought a rematch.
The 2nd District assumed roughly its current shape and size after the 1960 Census dropped Maine’s congressional count from three to two. It is the largest and most rural district east of the Mississippi River.
Despite its shifting boundaries, the working-class district has remained as gentle on incumbents as it has since McGillicuddy came up short.
Whether history will prove as kind to Poliquin as it has to so many of his predecessors won’t be known until after the polls close on Nov. 6.
Daniel McGillicuddy, a Lewiston lawyer and former mayor, served in the U.S. House from 1911 to 1917. In 1916, he was the last 2nd District congressman to lose a re-election battle. (Library of Congress)
Former U.S. Rep. Daniel McGillicuddy, a Democrat who served three terms more than a century ago, was from Lewiston. He died in 1936. (U.S. House of Representatives Collection)