With only two of New England’s 21 U.S. House members from the Republican Party’s ranks, it’s not surprising that GOP freshman Bruce Poliquin of Maine is facing a tough re-election bid.

Donald Trump, his party’s presidential candidate, isn’t making it any easier.

The problem the 2nd District incumbent faces is that many rank-and-file Republicans are deeply conservative and have embraced the problematic presidential hopeful, but more mainstream party members and independents are far less enthusiastic.

Trying to walk that narrow line between the two factions poses “a tough dilemma” for Poliquin and a lot of other potentially vulnerable GOP officeholders across the country, said Colby College government professor Sandy Maisel.

“Whatever he does” has consequences for his race, Maisel said. If Poliquin fails to back Trump strongly, “he loses credibility” with the conservative base, but if he doesn’t denounce the billionaire he may come up short among middle-of-the-road voters.

“I think Poliquin would rather discuss most anything else besides Trump,” said Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine-Farmington.


“What he can’t do anything about is the number of Republicans who are going to stay home — and these are all Poliquin voters,” Maisel said.

Poliquin, of Oakland, is locked in a close contest against Democrat Emily Cain of Orono, whom he defeated two years ago to claim the seat in an off-year election that proved generally kind to Republicans.

This time around, the political landscape looks very different, with Republican leaders across the country trying to figure out how best to handle the questions surrounding Trump. Maisel said Republicans may even lose control of the House, a concern that helped spur House Speaker Paul Ryan on Monday to declare he would focus on preserving his majority instead of promoting Trump.

Poliquin has chosen a duck-and-cover strategy to avoid discussing his party’s leader, a policy that he finally abandoned over the weekend with a brief response to the newly uncovered tape of Trump crudely bragging about sexual assaults on women.

“Donald Trump’s comments were repulsive. There is no place in Maine and America to demean any person,” Poliquin said, his first words on Trump after weeks of dodging questions about his party’s standard-bearer. Poliquin did not respond to a request to elaborate Monday.

“Trump poses a real quandary for Poliquin” so the congressman “has stepped gingerly around him, neither endorsing him nor saying he won’t,” Melcher said.


“The longer that goes on,” he said, “the more his critics will say he lacks enough of a core set of beliefs, but when he finally says how he is voting, there will be people mad at him either way.”

Maisel said Trump presents “a softball for the Democratic candidates” because Trump backers are lost to them anyway.

Cain’s campaign wasted no time blasting Poliquin’s reluctance to say more or to take a firm stand against Trump.

“Political calculation is fundamental to who Congressman Poliquin is,” Cain said. “He does what benefits himself, whether it’s using a tax loophole to dodge tens of thousands of dollars in taxes, standing up for a sexist TV ad or refusing to answer fundamental questions about his political values.” 

Cain added, “Leaders speak up. That’s what Susan Collins did,” when she declared she could not support Trump. “If Bruce Poliquin can’t answer fundamental questions about his beliefs, he’s not fit to represent the people of Maine.”

Melcher said Trump may help Poliquin in one respect: he may spur voters to turn out who wouldn’t have bothered to cast a ballot in 2012 for Mitt Romney, especially given the desire by many of the same people to vote against the gun measure on Question 3.


Poliquin’s efforts to straddle the divide, though, are typical of many of his House colleagues.

“I don’t see many Profiles in Courage out there,” Maisel said, referring to a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that John F. Kennedy wrote in 1957. Instead, he said, politicians such as Poliquin “are making calculated, political decisions” about how best to deal with Trump.

In 2014, Poliquin defeated Cain 47 percent to 42 percent with independent Blaine Richardson capturing 11 percent.

Two polls taken in September found Poliquin ahead by 5 to 10 percent. But both sides are pouring money into the contest on the assumption that the outcome is likely to be close.

Poliquin can take some comfort, however, from the fact that no 2nd District congressman has failed to win re-election since Lewiston attorney Daniel McGillicuddy, a Democrat, fell short in his bid for a third term in 1916 — a century ago.

The other GOP congressman from New England, New Hampshire’s Frank Guinta, is likely to lose, Maisel said. If U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Poliquin come up short at the polls, Collins would almost certainly be the only remaining Republican representing New England on Capitol Hill.


New England hasn’t always been so unfriendly to Republicans. A century ago, it was rock-solid for the GOP and even as recently as the early 1970s, Republicans held 10 of 25 House seats in the six-state region.

By 2008, though, the Democrats had swept the table. Republicans picked up a couple of seats in 2010, but it’s a hard slog for them in nearly every district.

The 2nd District includes Auburn, Lewiston, Bangor, northern areas and the coastline north of Portland. The election is Nov. 8.

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