CHARLESTON, Maine — Maine’s vast Second Congressional District is the largest east of the Mississippi River, the second-most rural in the country, and the only slice of New England where President Donald Trump won an electoral vote in 2016.
A bevy of lawn signs from the Great North Woods to Down East fishing villages show Trump remains popular in this sprawling district. And few places show as much raw enthusiasm for him as tiny Charleston, whose 1,049 residents live among hills, farms, and forest 30 miles northwest of Bangor.
Four years ago, Trump trounced Hillary Clinton in Charleston by nearly four to one, a stark contrast with her narrow victory statewide. And despite near-daily turbulence from the White House, Trump’s impeachment, and a pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 Americans, the president’s message continues to resonate here — even if polls indicate his support is ebbing elsewhere in the district.
"It might be five to one this time,” said Rusty Weymouth, 65, a Charleston trucker and former fire chief who called Democratic candidate Joe Biden “the most crooked politician I’ve ever seen.”
“I love him,” Weymouth said of Trump. “I don’t know if I like his personality, but you have to look at what he’s done. He’s cut taxes; he’s brought jobs back; he’s going to get peace in the Middle East before he’s done.”
Weymouth, a burly man wearing a baseball cap and suspenders, laughed as he talked about the eight Trump lawn signs that his 18-year-old grandson had placed near the street.
It’s a family thing, this support of the president, he said. Elsewhere in town, which is 97 percent white, it’s a reflection of what many see as Trump’s support for hard work, self-sufficiency, and an aversion to government welfare.
“I’ve been part of this town and everything about it for all of my life," Weymouth said, ducking under a roof during a light rain. “He can be a bit crude and have a big mouth, but that’s confidence. My blood pressure is a hell of a lot better now with Trump in there than it was with Obama.”
Trump outpolled Clinton, 75.9 percent to 20 percent, in Charleston four years ago. That margin far surpassed his performance in the rest of Penobscot County, which Trump carried 51.9 to 40.9 percent, and in the Second District overall, which he took by a similar margin of 51 to 41 percent.
Clinton narrowly won the statewide race, gaining 47.9 percent of the vote to Trump’s 45.2 percent. The state apportions a single electoral vote to the winner in each of its congressional districts. The remaining two electoral votes are awarded to the overall victor.
Every electoral vote is important in presidential races, which explains why even a district blanketed with large swaths of wilderness can draw close attention.
On Sunday, Trump paid a surprise campaign visit to an apple orchard near Bangor. On Oct. 19, Vice President Mike Pence spoke in nearby Hermon. And in June, the president visited tiny Guilford. In late September, a Colby College poll of the district showed a close race, with Biden receiving 46 percent support to Trump’s 43.
The district is represented by Jared Golden, a Democrat who polls show has a comfortable lead over Republican Dale Crafts. Statewide, Biden also appears to have a comfortable edge, and plenty of campaign signs in Portland and Maine’s more affluent southern communities.
But on the few roads in Charleston, marquee billing goes to the top of the ticket — and Trump. Biden signs are rarities.
Even the heated US Senate race between four-term Republican incumbent Susan Collins and Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House, seems almost an afterthought, even though that contest could help flip control of the chamber to Democrats.
“I truly believe in my heart that there is a swamp in Washington that doesn’t care about the interests of the country," said Barry Higgins, 71, who manages Maple Lane Farms, a bustling five-generation business that sells beef, pork, and hay.
“I’m afraid if he doesn’t get in that the scales will tip toward socialism,” Higgins said. "It’s a scary time in the history of our country.”
As Higgins sat in his office, a beehive of activity that runs the 1,800-acre farm, he ticked off what he has liked about the past four years: fewer regulations, progress on trade, support for law and order, and Trump’s oversight of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think he’s done a good job with it," Higgins said of the virus, although critics sharply disagree. "It’s like writing a book that’s never been written before.”
Like much of up-country Maine, Penobscot County has been spared the worst of the pain caused by the pandemic. As of Thursday, the county had recorded 284 cases and six deaths, according to state data.
Masks aren’t required among the 30 employees at Maple Lane Farms, and Higgins wasn’t wearing one during a recent visit. Social distancing is encouraged, but Higgins acknowledged that often isn’t possible because much of the staff works “shoulder to shoulder.”
“I’m not against masks," Higgins said. "Politically, [Trump] probably should have emphasized masks and social distancing more. I think it’s hurt him.”
Still, Higgins said he often can tell a liberal by whether he or she is wearing a mask. If another clue is needed, he said, “there’s just an air about them."
Much of what Trump represents for Higgins and Kevin Strout, the owner of a welding and fabrication business, is a bulwark against their creeping fears of socialism.
“We don’t have time to protest. We’ve got work to do," Strout said. "The economy has been very strong, everybody’s got money, and they want to spend it.”
In 2017, the town’s median household income was $52,962, slightly below the state median of $56,277.
Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, said much of Trump’s stance is a good fit for the district.
“He says he is supportive of working-class, blue-collar Americans who have been taken advantage of. That has a big appeal up here,” Brewer said. “Trump also says he is a strong advocate for the Second Amendment, and guns are a big issue in the Second Congressional District.”
Another trait that appeals to Higgins and Strout is Trump’s unvarnished bluntness. “If he thinks you’re a son of a bitch, he’ll tell it to your face,” the farm manager said. “And that’s the way we are!” Strout added with a big smile.
Randa Higgins, Barry’s daughter-in-law, doesn’t care for some of Trump’s behavior, but she plans to vote for him anyway.
“He’s not the best politician, but he’s also not a politician," said Higgins, a 48-year-old with four children and a hair salon that is closed because of COVID concerns. “I don’t think there’s any one candidate who’s going to fit the bill for everyone, obviously.”
She also doesn’t care for the country’s political polarization, a trend that critics say Trump has deepened and exploited.
"I’m not blaming that on him. I’m just blaming it on people,” Higgins said. “Social media has made it too damn easy to run your mouth.”
What counts in the end, she said, is respect for the process and for people whose politics are different.
“I tell my kids, you are going to vote," she said. “I don’t care who you vote for, but you are going to vote.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.