Now that my former congressman, Bruce Poliquin, has made clear his intent to run for his old seat, a clearer picture has begun to emerge of the 2nd Congressional District race.
It’s easy to write this race off as a simple rematch between an incumbent who lost re-election and the person who defeated him. That’s a common enough occurrence in American politics, especially in congressional races. Simply looking at the 2nd District race through that lens would be a mistake, though, for a number of reasons – some of which are unique to Maine, while others are indicative of the national political climate.
When rematches like this occur in politics, they’re ordinarily immediately after an incumbent loses reelection – as it would be if Donald Trump chooses to run for president again in 2024. That’s not the case here: Poliquin took a pass on running for Congress last year, in what was a strong year for Republican candidates not named Donald Trump.
While the Republican congressional nominee, Dale Crafts, did surprisingly well against Golden (better than the pollsters and many analysts expected), he still came up short. Last year’s race was a prime example of national Republicans essentially ignoring a thoroughly winnable race, in yet another example of why House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California shouldn’t be anywhere near leadership.
The question that hasn’t been thoroughly addressed, since the Republican Party was more interested in contesting the 2020 results than in analyzing them, was why McCarthy forgot about Maine. Did their polls show Crafts much further behind, or did they simply presume it wouldn’t be much of a race without Poliquin? Either way, they were dramatically wrong. We’ll never know whether Poliquin would have fared better or worse than Crafts in 2020.
What we do know is that the 2nd District will look different, literally and figuratively, this time around. Literally, there will be towns in the district that weren’t last time; the 1st District continues to outpace the 2nd in population growth. It appears likely that most, if not all, of Kennebec County will end up in the 2nd District. That will probably end up helping Golden (even though Maine has a bipartisan redistricting process), simply because there aren’t enough conservative small towns to move around. It probably won’t be a huge change politically, but in a competitive district it will still have a definite impact.
Apart from redistricting, the political landscape has shifted considerably nationally and in Maine since 2018.
It’s astonishing to consider, but just think for a moment of everything that’s happened since Poliquin last ran: the pandemic, the presidential election, the Jan. 6 insurrection, the (disastrous) U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, just to name a few. The political landscape is completely different after four years just thanks to current events. While it may seem as if that’s always the case, that’s been especially true lately, and it seems to be getting worse every year.
That will provide both peril and opportunity for Poliquin: It allows him to remake himself somewhat in light of recent events, but he would also have to publicly state his position on any number of issues that he’s been able to avoid. Whether you think this will ultimately be a good thing for him or not probably depends on your partisan perspective. But the real question will not be what activists think, but what the typical voter perceives. Are recent events enough to make them rethink their prior vote for Golden, or are they even less likely to vote for Poliquin in 2022 than in 2018? It’s an open question, and one that’s challenging for any candidate considering a comeback, in Maine or nationally – whether you’re Poliquin, Trump or Paul LePage.
Even though it’s likely that the next election will feature the same names in the 2nd District, the race will hardly be a simple rematch. Instead, it will be an excellent test of whether a candidate who ran before the Trump era, and who was well established as a conservative politician before Trump’s term, can re-create the pre-Trump conservative coalition while retaining Trump’s populist support. It will be a delicate balance, but Poliquin will need to continue to embrace Trump’s more popular policies without alienating either moderates or traditional conservatives.
Should Poliquin succeed, he can show other Republicans – both nationally and in Maine – how they can move forward now that Trump is out of office. If he (and LePage) fail to win their races, Republicans will need to completely rethink their approach in the post-Trump era.