WASHINGTON — As the lone New England Republican in the House, Representative Bruce Poliquin of Maine has grown accustomed to being the last of an endangered species. Now his fight against extinction is looking more dire.
Energized Democrats leaders looking to make New England a clean sweep in 2018 are training their fire on Poliquin, a former investment manager running for his third term, in a race that will test whether a national backlash against President Trump will spread to the far northeastern corner of the nation.
Voters in the blue-collar Second Congressional District filled with forests, lobsters, and blueberries swung heavily for Trump in 2016. This year they could reverse course and help fuel the Democratic wave that threatens to swamp dozens of House Republicans across the country.
The situation in the northern Maine district highlights an alarming, long-term trend for New England Republicans. The region’s voters have purged them from Congress as the GOP has become more conservative and less accommodating of moderates. If Poliquin loses and the partisan balance of power remains the same in the rest of New England, Maine Senator Susan Collins could wind up the last Republican in Congress from the entire region.
In his bid to hang on and buck the anti-Trump tide, Poliquin is attempting to maintain a low, hyper-local profile and avoid the inevitable questions about Trump’s chaotic presidency. He employed the same strategy in his successful 2016 reelection campaign. And again he is refusing most interview requests — a key part of his under-the-radar approach — and would not talk to the Globe for this article.
“I drove the press crazy for nine months because I stayed on message” and avoided questions about Trump in 2016, Poliquin said, in audio recorded at an event sponsored by the Maine Heritage Policy Center. “And it worked.”
Poliquin was mocked for repeatedly refusing to say whether he was voting for Trump during that campaign, yet he won handily. This time around, there are five Democrats competing in a primary to take him on. They are portraying him as an inauthentic waffler who’s hiding from tough questions.
When a Globe reporter approached Poliquin in the Capitol last month, he politely declined to comment while power-walking away.
“On political stories like that we have a political team that deals with that,” Poliquin said as he strode purposefully toward the door, his coat billowing behind him. “Reach out to the political people, OK?”
Alex Conant, a GOP political strategist who worked for Senator Marco Rubio, said avoiding land mines associated with Trump worked for many Republicans in 2016.
“A lot of candidates over-performed Trump in 2016 by following a similar strategy — running their own campaign, focusing on local issues, and avoiding all the controversy surrounding Trump as much as possible,” Conant said. But this year, if fired-up Democrats turn out in greater numbers than Republicans, it may not matter what Poliquin does.
“A wave is indiscriminate,” Conant said. “Strategies and tactics are overwhelmed by massive turnout from the opposition.”
Two of the Democrats vying to challenge Poliquin are Jared Golden, a state representative and Marine Corps veteran who used to work for Collins; and Lucas St. Clair, a conservationist who recently led a campaign to create a national monument on land his family donated to the government.
A Global Strategy Group poll in October had Poliquin leading St. Clair, the poll’s highest-performing Democratic candidate, by three points in a head-to-head matchup. But in a matchup with a nameless Democrat, Poliquin was down 10 points.
The Democrats are leading a charge against Poliquin that focuses less on Trump and more on the incumbent’s vote last May to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, a failed effort that would have resulted in steep Medicaid cuts for Maine, especially in the poor, rural areas of the sprawling Second Congressional District.
“On a strategic level I see his vote on the health care repeal as the real Achilles heel for Poliquin this year,” said Cole Leiter, a spokesman at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is targeting the district.
Especially awkward is that while Poliquin voted for repeal, Collins was one of the pivotal Republican votes that killed the Republican effort in the Senate, drawing her praise from health care advocates across the state. Collins, who praised Poliquin as “extremely energetic and hard working” in an interview with the Globe, says she plans to campaign for him in Maine. (Collins added she does not have a “close relationship” with her former staffer Golden and will not be supporting him.)
She shrugged off his health care vote as a simple difference of opinion. “Obviously he and I reached different conclusions as far as the impact of the health care bill on the state of Maine and I feel very comfortable with my analysis,” Collins said.
At times, Poliquin has seemed less comfortable than Collins with his vote. His Democratic opponents point to a May article in Slate that described the Congressman darting into a Capitol Hill bathroom to avoid answering a reporter’s question about how he intended to vote on the health care bill. He eventually announced his decision to support the legislation just an hour before the vote on a conference call with Maine reporters.
“In Maine, everyone is aware of the story of him running in to the bathroom to avoid the press,” said Golden. Liberals have plastered bumper stickers on their cars that ask, “Where’s Bruce?”
Poliquin’s political adviser Brent Littlefield told the Globe the congressman primarily speaks with local Maine media, and that he’s done several on-camera interviews with local reporters in the past few weeks alone. Littlefield said the congressman waited to announce his health care vote last year because the bill was constantly changing up until the last minute.
“It’s clear these Democrats are trying to out-attack each other when it comes to attacking Congressman Poliquin because they view that as some kind of advantage in their in-party fight, but their real opponents are themselves,” Littlefield said. “We’ll see who emerges from their party squabble in June.”
Democrats have also knocked Poliquin for putting up “appointment only” signs in some of his field offices that require constituents to call in advance if they want to speak to staff.
Littlefield, Poliquin’s political adviser, said the field offices instituted an appointment-only system because staffers need to travel the vast district for meetings and cannot always be in their offices.
But Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine, said the behavior was unusual for a politician in the state.
“The model in Maine has been one of high accessibility and Poliquin has flouted that so far,” Brewer said. “I think he could potentially pay a price for that.”
Poliquin could have a financial advantage. He raised nearly $500,000 in the last three months of 2017 and has nearly $2 million on hand. His team touts his work on the tax reform bill that recently became law and for helping to found the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force to combat the opioid epidemic.
Golden raised $240,245 over the same period. St. Clair picked up $207,000, but as the heir of the skin care products company Burt’s Bees, he could potentially self-fund a run.
The crowded Democratic primary could also splinter Democratic voters or stir up intra-party resentment. Golden has been endorsed by a fellow Marine veteran Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a rising star in the Democratic party, while St. Clair picked up the backing of former Secretary of the Interior under Obama, Sally Jewell. Local Berniecrats of Maine, the state branch of Senator Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution group, chose Jonathan Fulford, the owner of a construction business who lost two recent bids for the state Senate, as their candidate.
The candidates also have their liabilities: Poliquin’s team has attacked Golden for his youth and St. Clair for only recently moving into the district he wants to represent. Conant, the GOP strategist, said a danger for Democrats is nominating someone who’s too liberal for the district, which could motivate an otherwise sleepy GOP base.
But for now, the Democratic candidates are staying focused on Poliquin — not each other.
“All of the candidates in the primary, we all have a quiver of arrows we can deploy,” St. Clair said. “We’re deploying them at Bruce Poliquin.”