Style and experience — not the issues — separate the three Democrats vying next Tuesday for Bruce Poliquin’s seat in Congress.

Democrats sense an opportunity to upend a Republican member of Congress in Maine’s sprawling, scrappy 2nd District, the poorest and least diverse east of the Mississippi River.

With pockets of unemployment and a raging opioid problem, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s turf is rural, white and less educated than three-quarters of the districts in America — all characteristics of places where the GOP has done well in recent years. It’s the only district in New England that supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Yet three Democrats vying for their party’s backing in Tuesday’s congressional primary say they can defeat two-term Poliquin and help snatch the U.S. House from the GOP’s control in the process. Political experts such as Cook’s Report say the district — the scene of two consecutive campaigns that drew national attention and money — leans Republican but isn’t out of reach for the opposition.

Hoping to win the primary are a state representative from Lewiston, Jared Golden; the director of a nonprofit environmental group, Lucas St. Clair; and Craig Olson, an Islesboro bookstore owner who runs his town’s transfer station. One other candidate on the ballot, Jonathan Fulford, dropped out too late to have his name removed, but he is not in the running.

The three have such similar policy agendas — they joke about how they can finish each other’s sentences — that what they bring to the table differs mostly in terms of their backgrounds.

One thing they all agree on is that whomever emerges on top in the primary, it’s crucial for the party’s chance in the Nov. 6 general election that Democrats stick together if they want to have a shot at handing Poliquin a pink slip.

“We have to be a united front staying laser-focused on November,” St. Clair said.

A noteworthy aspect of their primary is that it will be the first congressional matchup in American history to rely on ranked-choice voting to determine the winner. What that means is that every Democratic voter in the 2nd District will have the option of selecting a first, second and third choice in the race.

When the ballots are counted, if none of the three has more than 50 percent of the tally, the one with the least votes gets dropped and each of his supporter’s second choice will be added to the two remaining contenders. It’s possible, though unlikely, that the second-place finisher in the first round could end up as the victor in the race.

OPENING ROUNDS

For Olson, 52, it really started when Poliquin, 64, voted last year to wipe out the Affordable Care Act, a proposal endorsed by the GOP-controlled House but stymied by the Senate when U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, refused to go along.

Olson said Poliquin’s votes against the health care program that provides insurance for tens of thousands of his constituents “put me over the edge” because it showed the lawmaker “doesn’t have a clue” what people in Maine are going through.

For Golden, 35, his entry into the race came largely from the same “sense of service” that spurred him to join the Marines after terrorists commandeered four airliners on Sept. 11, 2001, and plunged them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a quiet field in Pennsylvania.

After logging tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Golden went to college and then ran successfully for the Maine State House, where he is the Democratic whip.

That political and military experience, along with a steady focus on issues he believes are most important to working families, convinced him to give the congressional race a shot.

St. Clair, 40, who would be one of the few members of Congress without a college degree, jumped into the race after leading the successful effort to convince President Barack Obama to create the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in 2016.

In that fight, he said, the major obstacle to his family’s effort to give the land to the federal government was Poliquin, who “really abandoned” his duty to think critically about how to improve his district.

St. Clair said he learned how to beat Poliquin “on a very controversial and very challenging stage” by talking extensively with residents, compromising and building a coalition more powerful than the congressman.

Initially, three other Democrats were seeking their party’s endorsement: postal carrier Phil Cleaves, restaurant owner Tim Rich and Fulford, a builder. Each dropped out.

ON THE ISSUES, THEY MOSTLY AGREE

On health care, each supports moving toward universal coverage, probably by gradually expanding Medicare until everyone is insured.

Olson said his first bill would seek to repeal the health care plans that members of Congress and their staffs rely on until they can figure out a solution for all Americans.

The three Democrats said they would like to see American troops come home from foreign wars they agree have dragged on too long.

“We have to be a more responsible global player from a military perspective,” Golden said. “We have to find a way to lead with diplomacy and not with war.”

The three favor doing more to help those with big debts from college and more to fund education in general.

They want to see a higher minimum wage, though St. Clair said he’s not sure he would go as high as the $15-an-hour his opponents favor.

They all are worried about climate change, favor power sources that don’t require the use of fossil fuels and want government to prepare for a warming world. Golden alone said he might consider relying more on nuclear power as an energy option since it wouldn’t contribute to climate change.

St. Clair agreed with one questioner at a recent forum who said warming might benefit Maine in some ways. He said that might be true in the short term, pointing to a longer growing season for crops and the possibility of an open water route through the Arctic to busy ports in the Pacific.

Each supports legal immigration as a way to provide more workers and to bolster the country’s future.

“Part of our American values is to take those people” fleeing oppression and war, Golden said, and “give them great opportunities to build a life” in the United States.

Olson said the system has worked in the past and will continue to do the same.

“We need new people in this country,” Olson said. “We need new blood.”

St. Clair said Americans should be proud that people want to come to its shores. Welcoming them is fundamental, he said.

Compromising that spirit because of where immigrants come from “is racist and I think it needs to be addressed as that,” St. Clair said.

ANONYMOUS ADS PROVIDE RARE BIT OF FRICTION

The candidates have gathered for forums in at least nine locales over the course of months. Each time, they’ve been relatively low-key, friendly affairs.

But that doesn’t mean everything’s always been rosy.

The first candidate to pull out of the race who had actively campaigned, Bar Harbor’s Tim Rich, left unhappy because he thought party leaders were pulling strings to help Golden.

“I was extremely disappointed with the way that many establishment figures in Maine felt like it was fair to tell lies and spread rumors about Lucas’ background, motivations and electability,” Rich said recently. He has endorsed St. Clair as a pragmatist who can get things done “without buying into the usual political excuses.”

At the end of April, Fulford quit the race just hours after winning the endorsement of Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution group. A Monroe resident, he said he needed to focus on his family. He never offered a more complete explanation. He has not endorsed anyone.

Golden has backing from a wide range of labor groups, including the Maine AFL-CIO, and most of his fellow Democratic lawmakers. End Citizens United also endorsed him.

The most serious split among Democrats occurred last month when an outside group created in March by the man who served as best man at St. Clair’s 1999 wedding spent $300,000 on television advertisements touting Katahdin Woods and hailing St. Clair’s role in its creation. Where the money came from has never been explained.

The ads by the Maine Outdoor Alliance stopped one day before a federal law would have required disclosure of the donors’ names.

Since then, the group has sent out at least two slick mailers featuring St. Clair prominently. They were received mostly by 2nd District Democrats, though the group is not considered a political one. The same federal law does not require donor disclosure for mailers.

After Golden cried foul, St. Clair urged the group to stop its advertising and disclose its donors. It hasn’t.

Golden said that St. Clair obviously has ties to the group and that St. Clair’s claims that he doesn’t know who is behind it all don’t pass “the straight-face test.” Golden urged his opponent “to walk the walk” on campaign finance reform instead of simply calling for a better system.

All three candidates have endorsed a range of measures aimed at improving transparency in campaign finances.

A MATTER OF STYLE … AND UNITY

Democrats say there is a lot of grass-roots enthusiasm they hope can lead to victory in November.

St. Clair said it’s crucial to hold on to “the focus, the determination and the numbers” to keep the pressure on Poliquin. “I know exactly how to run a campaign to beat him in November,” St. Clair said.

“I am ready to beat Bruce Poliquin,” Golden said. “I‘ve got the experience and the record and I know what leadership is all about.”

Olson, who insists he can win, said that “none of us can assume there’s going to be a blue wave” that creates a surge of Democratic votes. “We have to work at it as if it will be an uphill battle,” he said.

Olson said, though, that whomever wins the primary, “we all three are united behind that person because we just have to get this seat back.”

Poliquin, a former Wall Street executive and Maine real estate developer, captured the 2nd District seat after Democrat Mike Michaud opted to step down in 2014. Poliquin defeated Democrat Emily Cain that year and beat her by an even wider margin in 2016 in one of the costliest House elections in the country.

The Cook Political Report says the 2nd District is the 222nd most GOP district among the 435 House seats, making it just a little more Republican than average.

The Nov. 6 ballot will have four congressional candidates listed: Poliquin, the Democratic winner and two independents, Portland lawyer Tiffany Bond and Southwest Harbor educator Will Hoar.

Members of Congress serve two-year terms, and are paid $174,000 a year.

Polls will be open Tuesday until 8 p.m. In addition to the 2nd District Democratic primary, statewide gubernatorial primaries for both parties and a ballot question on whether to keep ranked-choice voting will be on the ballot. Some local primaries and budget referenda are also being held.

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Jared Golden (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Jared Golden

For a time, congressional hopeful Jared Golden hoped to become a high school history teacher.

That went out the window when Golden, who grew up in Leeds, joined the Marines after 9/11, looking for “something bigger” than himself.

He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, lugging a rifle and developing an expertise in small explosives. It was, by turns, ugly and inspiring for Golden, offering the chance to hunt for terrorists, help people vote and fight off insurgents.

Looking back, Golden called those years “the proudest moments of my life. It’s the core of who I am.”

After leaving the service, he studied politics and history at Bates College, then worked as a professional staff member for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins on the Homeland Security Committee, followed by a stint as a legislative aide in the Maine State House. He won a seat from Lewiston in 2014.

Golden is married. His wife, Isobel Golden, is a former Lewiston city councilor who is attending law school.

Craig Olson (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Craig Olson

Born in Wisconsin, Olson came to Maine 17 years ago to work for a foundation that sought to preserve rare breeds of animals.

He said he fell in love with the state and bought a fixer-upper on Islesboro as a great place to raise a family.

A history buff who operates his town’s transfer station, Olson runs a bookstore. He has served as a selectman, as well.

Olson earned a degree in criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and went on to secure a master’s degree in history museum studies at the State University of New York’s Cooperstown Graduate Program. Olson met his wife, Melissa, at Cooperstown. They have four daughters.

Lucas St. Clair (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Lucas St. Clair

Growing up, St. Clair lived in a Piscataquis County cabin his parents built in the woods that didn’t have running water or electricity.

That, however, changed. After his parents divorced, his mother, Roxanne Quimby, made a fortune selling Burt’s Bees, which she co-founded.

He said he didn’t like school much and spent his days roaming the outdoors, hunting, fishing and soaking in everything around him in the forest he loved.

“It was a place where I felt the most comfortable, the most at ease,” St. Clair said.

Not even 20, St. Clair walked the Appalachian Trail, including a long stretch in Maine’s interior that didn’t show off the area the way he thought it should. After he talked about it with his mother, Quimby bought the land bit by bit over many years.

St. Clair, who is married and has two children, wound up as a professional chef — once appearing on Martha Stewart’s television show to make lemon scones — later quitting the restaurant trade, working as a guide and ultimately spending years trying to give tens of thousands of family-owned acres to the federal government for a new park.


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