Unique Voting System, Convergence of Campaigns Muddle Swing Seat

A top-tier Senate race, a presidential battleground, and a unique election procedure in Maine are complicating the race for one of the most vulnerable House seats in the country.

Three Republicans are running in the July 14 primary to take on Rep. Jared Golden (D) in the 2nd District, which is one of two in the state and encompasses most of northern Maine and the city Bangor. It leans more Republican than the 1st, making it a turnout focal point for Sen. Susan Collins (R) and President Donald Trump, who visited the district in June and hopes to pick up a single electoral vote there as he did in 2016.

University of New England political scientist Brian Duff said the convergence will create a tougher road for Golden to win a second term. He won in 2018 thanks to the state’s ranked-choice voting system, unseating Republican Bruce Poliquin on the second ballot by 3,000 votes after trailing the incumbent on the first.

Duff said the GOP primary will be a choice between the Trump-aligned conservatives and a more libertarian Republican, though all three tout their support of the president, who carried the district by 10 percentage points. Adrienne Bennett, who was a press secretary for former Gov. Paul LePage, and former state Rep. Dale Crafts were early Trump supporters. Former state Sen. Eric Brakey initially backed Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in 2016 before getting behind Trump.

“It feels like it’s going to be a proxy election for people, whether they like Trump or not,” Duff said. “So who captures that spirit might have an advantage in the primary.”

Photo by Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg
Trump waves on the South Lawn while departing for Maine on June 5.

Mike Leavitt, a Bennett campaign consultant, said the combination of the House, Senate and presidential races, as well as a statewide ballot initiative on a power corridor to Massachusetts, make the media markets more costly.

In the Bangor market alone, Democratic and Republican groups and candidates have spent a collective $20 million. The House race has drawn $8 million in ad spending in total, according to Advertising Analytics.

“Maine doesn’t always get this much attention during the election season, especially the 2nd Congressional District,” Leavitt said. “It’s going to be a very crowded field, and the paid media side of things obviously drives up the cost.”

Dividing Lines

Brakey started out as the front-runner, Duff said, given the name-recognition advantage he earned from a Senate run in 2018, when he lost to Sen. Angus King (I). This cycle he outraised the rest of the field, with $800,000 total, and was endorsed by the Club for Growth Action, which aired an ad with the tagline, “For Trump. For Congress.”

His delayed support for Trump made him the target of a Bennett ad in June that featured a video of him dancing in a speedo, saying he’s a “clown.” The clip was from a commercial for Vita Coco coconut water that Brakey was hired for in 2011, and it has come up in political races ever since.

Brakey spokesman David Boyer said Brakey is a Trump supporter and is more likely to attract swing voters who voted for the president but aren’t Republicans.

“I understand her campaign is basically being the biggest Trump supporter, and we support Trump, too,” Boyer said. “I think voters know better.”

Despite Bennett having worked for him, LePage endorsed Crafts, who branded himself as the conservative businessman who “has President Trump’s back.”

Leavitt said the LePage endorsement was a response to a poll Bennett released that showed Crafts in third place.

On to November

Leavitt said one of the biggest advantages the Republican nominee will have is that Golden won by less than a point and would’ve lost if not for the ranked-choice voting system, which was used for the first time ever in a congressional election. In it, voters order the candidates by preference.

Running for a third term, Poliquin led on the first ballot but failed to get a majority of the vote. That initiated an instant runoff and eliminated two third-party candidates; enough of their voters preferred Golden over Poliquin to hand him the win on the second ballot.

“Having the presidential race there and having the president there, and all the get-out-the-vote efforts and all that comes along with it, is going to be beneficial to the” Republican, Leavitt said.

Golden, who was a staffer for Collins, hasn’t endorsed state House Speaker Sarah Gideon (D) in the Senate race and has said he will stay neutral. His positioning as a centrist Democrat will make the November race “very close,” said state Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick (D). Gratwick, who worked with Golden in the state legislature, said Golden’s pragmatic approach to politics will appeal to more voters.

“He works well across the aisle,” Gratwick said. “He’s not ideological. He’s pragmatic.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Samantha Handler in Washington at shandler@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com