In the far northeast of the country, Maine’s 2nd Congressional District is a place with long stretches of empty highway, trees beyond measure and lots of rocky coastline with unbeatable scenery.

It is also a political hot spot unparalleled in America.

Map of Maine’s 2nd District Secretary of State’s Office

No other congressional district has such close races in 2020 for the House and Senate, as well as uncertainty about its verdict on whether President Donald Trump deserves a second term.

Sandy Maisel, a government professor at Colby College in Waterville, said there’s a reasonable case to be made that “there is no congressional district that is more competitive in the entire nation.”

People say that races in small states like Maine aren’t that big a deal, Maisel said, “but here’s a district everyone is going to be paying attention to.”

The largest district east of the Mississippi, which leans Republican but isn’t reliably red, Maine’s 2nd Congressional District could decide Trump’s re-election next year as well as whether the Senate remains in the hands of the GOP and if Democrats continue to control the House.

“The voters of the district are probably the most important in all of America,” said Republican Eric Brakey, a former state senator from Auburn who is one of three GOP congressional contenders in the 2nd District race.

Only one district in the United States (in Kentucky) is more rural than the 2nd District, which shares a 611 mile-long border with Canada and possesses one of the longest coastlines of any congressional district. Its few cities – including Lewiston, Bangor and Auburn – are too small to outweigh the 72% of residents sprinkled through hundreds of small towns and unorganized territories.

What makes it such a swing district is the fierce independent streak that marks so many Mainers in it, said Tiffany Bond, who ran unsuccessfully for its congressional seat last year.

Some see a quirky, sometimes stubborn element in that independence, but it is what makes the blue-collar district so unpredictable and prompts politicians from across the spectrum to see opportunity in pursuing its votes.

“It’s about as important as anywhere,” said James Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine Farmington. The 2nd District is, he said, a focal point for the nation’s politics.

Reviving an old slogan, Brakey said, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation. Maine’s 2nd District voters are in a position to decide America’s course for generations to come.”

HOW THE 2ND DISTRICT STACKS UP

There are lots of political pundits who have rated next year’s U.S. Senate races. Generally, four of them are considered close: Maine, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina, with Maine’s Susan Collins by far the highest profile incumbent at risk.

Maisel said that because of Collins, a Republican who is one of the most senior senators, Maine is “probably the top race in the country” for the Senate.

There is only one congressional district in any of the four states with tight Senate races that is rated a toss-up by University of Virginia government professor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball: the 2nd District in Maine.

Every other district in each of the four states is considered reliably red or blue, almost certainly safe for either the Republicans or the Democrats, a sign of how rare genuinely swing districts have become.

THE PRESIDENTIAL RACE IN THE 2ND

Because of Maine’s unusual system of allocating presidential electors, the 2nd District is also the only one competitive enough to potentially deliver an electoral vote directly to either to Trump or his opponent.

The few other districts that award electoral votes — Maine’s 1st District and those in Nebraska – are solidly in Democratic or GOP hands. Every other state hands out electoral votes on a statewide basis.

President Donald Trump Associated Press/Alex Brandon

Maisel said the presidential campaigns will take notice of that reality.

He said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the White House contenders from both parties making appearances in Bangor or Lewiston before Election Day next November in their quest to win in the 2nd.

Trump recognized the value of that single electoral vote in the last race.

“We kept going back to Maine,” he told The New York Times shortly after winning the presidency, explaining he wanted to make sure he won that elector in the 2nd District as a possible tiebreaker.

“You have to get one in Maine,” he said, “so we kept going back to Maine and we did get one in Maine.”

In nine of the past 12 presidential elections, the 2nd District backed the White House winner, including the last three, picking Barack Obama twice and then switching sides to deliver a 51-41 win for Trump.

THE SENATE RACE IN THE 2ND

Maisel said the House and Senate campaign committees for both parties are also going to pour money into the district in their quest to capture the 2nd District for their respective candidates.

Republican congressional hopeful Adrienne Bennett of Bangor said the only reason the district “is at all in play for Democrats is the amount of out-of-state money that they and their special interest groups are pouring in.”

She called it obscene and insisted “Democrats and their allies” won’t be able to “harass the Maine people enough” to win their votes.

The spending, though, is coming from both sides of the political aisle in an ever-growing tidal wave that is likely to shatter previous records for political spending in Maine, experts said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on Fox News last year, in the wake of Collins’ decision to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, that “Senator Collins will be well-funded, I can assure you.”

One reason that outsiders are likely to try hard to influence the outcome is that it is comparatively cheap to advertise in Maine. Melcher said that’s why so many groups pour money into television commercials in the Pine Tree State.

Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins File photo

“We’re already seeing it,” Melcher said, especially in the Collins contest.

Melcher and Maisel each said Collins – assuming she opts to run – will easily win the 2nd District.

But her overall re-election will depend on how big a margin she runs up in the 2nd District since she is likely to have major problems in the more Democratic, Portland-centered 1st District. If she doesn’t rack up a large win in northern and western Maine, Collins will lose, the experts said.

For Collins, who has traditionally had little trouble winning re-election, the uptick in partisanship since her last race in 2014 might pose difficulties she’s never faced before.

Trump’s election tallies in 2016 illustrate her potential problem. Despite winning the 2nd District with a 10-point margin, Trump lost the state to Democrat Hillary Clinton because she pulled in an even larger margin in the 1st District.

THE HOUSE RACE IN THE 2ND

The closeness of the Senate race plays into the politics of the House race as well, as candidates at every level try to turn out favorable voters who are likely to cast ballots in each contest.

Brakey said 2nd District voters shoulder “a big responsibility” because their choices are likely to matter in the House, Senate and presidential races.

Maine U.S. Rep. Jared Golden File photo

Bennett insisted the 2nd District House race is only competitive because so much out-of-state cash has poured in to boost the campaign of U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat.

In fact, though, in 2018 both parties saw record spending from dark money Super PACs and donors from outside Maine. Something similar is likely in 2020, experts said.

Melcher said political scientists have long recognized a “sophomore surge” that often helps first-term lawmakers win re-election in the House. But, he said, it may or may not apply to Golden’s race given all the factors at play.

Since Golden won a narrow victory in 2018 during “a very good Democratic year” in a district that backed Trump two years earlier, Melcher said it’s possible the incumbent could have some trouble repeating his win in 2020.

“Jared rode a blue wave into Congress” last year, Bennett said, “but with President Trump on the ticket, the voters this cycle are going to send him packing.”

Golden said recently the national wave had no real impact on his race. He said he won in 2018 through “hard work out in the field” in every town in the district, the same process he plans next time around.

ON THE GROUND IN THE 2ND

Elisa Schine, chairwoman of the Piscataquis County Democrats, has an on-the-ground perspective from the most GOP-friendly part of the district.

“Though the majority of our voters are independents, there is a strong Republican tradition” in the area, she said, which stretches all the way back to the party’s origins before the Civil War.

“We are also not an anomaly among the rural areas of this country: People listen to conservative talk radio, watch Fox News, and think that Trump is speaking for them when so many have not,” Schine said. “I think the presidential race is all but decided here.”

She said Collins, if she runs, “is a shoo-in” to rack up a big win in her county.

But Golden, Schine said, “has a much better chance now that people have seen his work, or as some of my more progressive friends might say, not seen his work. At a gas station, I got into a political discussion with a nice man who says he is independent, who said he didn’t like how Golden got elected” in the nation’s first ranked-choice voting election.

The fellow said, though, he would vote for Golden “now that he knows him,” she said.

Still, Schine said, Golden’s race remains “definitely a toss-up” in her neck of the woods.

Melcher said that in the final analysis, the 2nd District House race is likely to prove “very competitive.”

WHO’S RUNNING FOR WHAT

Golden will face the winner of the June Republican primary, which at this point features three contenders: Bennett, Brakey and Dale Crafts of Lisbon.

Until Golden defeated two-term U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, no 2nd District incumbent had come up short in a re-election bid since 1916.

In the Senate race, Democrats Sara Gideon of Freeport, Bre Kidman of Saco, Betsy Sweet of Hallowell and Ross LaJeunesse of Biddeford are vying for the chance to take on Collins in a June primary. Also in the running for the November general election are independent Danielle VanHelsing of Sangerville and the Green Independent Party’s Lisa Savage of Solon.

The presidential race will pit Trump against whoever emerges from a large field of Democratic contenders, including former Vice President Joe Biden; U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and others. Maine Democrats will pick among the contenders in a March presidential primary. Trump, too, may face a GOP primary at the same time.


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