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Pulse Newsletter: Why Presidential Candidates Care About The 2nd District's Paltry Electoral Votes

Maine’s 2nd Congressional District received a lot of national attention four years ago. It’s about to get some more.

The purple, quirky and enigmatic region — the largest district east of the Mississippi — could play an outsize role in determining the winner of the 2020 presidential election. That’s because Maine is one of just two states that award electoral votes by congressional district rather than giving them all to the statewide winner.

Maine has split its electoral votes exactly once. In 2016 President Donald Trump took the 2nd District and received one electoral vote. Trump didn’t need it then, but he might this year.

That’s why he visited Bangor and Guilford in early June, making appeals to a lobster industry hobbled by his trade war and trashing Gov. Janet Mills over her pandemic response as he attempted to reframe his own as a success.

His son Eric Trump visited last week to again woo the lobster industry. This week Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., held events in Holden and Bangor to flame Hunter Biden, who is not running for president but whose father, Joe Biden, is. Donald Trump Jr. also promoted 2nd District Republican candidate Dale Crafts and former Gov. Paul LePage, a 2022 presumptive gubernatorial candidate. He made no mention of Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins during his remarks to the crowd.

The events by the Trump sons almost certainly foreshadow another visit from the president, who made nearly half a dozen campaign stops in Maine in 2016.

It appears that Biden will pay more attention to the state than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, when she dispatched Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders twice to fire up activists and attempt to sand over a bitter primary battle. Jill Biden, who has spent months doubling as a campaign surrogate for her husband, was expected to visit the state on Friday, but details were not released before this newsletter was written.

Credit Rebecca Conley / Maine Public
Maine Public
The presidential limo in Maine in June.

That might seem like a lot of attention for Maine, which has a grand total of four electoral votes. But there are several Electoral College scenarios that suggest it’s worth it for the candidates to spend time here. One such scenario involves a tie in the Electoral College, which is just one of several Election Day nightmares contemplated by prognosticators.

Recent polls show Biden with a commanding lead statewide and very tight race in the 2nd District. And while a few of those polls give Biden the edge in the 2nd District, accurate polling there is notoriously difficult. One public poll just before Election Day gave Hillary Clinton the edge in the 2nd District in 2016. Trump won it by 10 percentage points.

The president’s victory prompted national pundits to declare the 2nd District deeply conservative, but that’s not its past and arguably not its present.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden won the 2nd District just two years after Trump did (more on Golden later). President Barack Obama convincingly won the district in 2008 and 2012. Democratic presidential candidates carried it from 1992 to 2012, but Republican presidential candidates have also won there. So what’s the defining characteristic of the presidential candidates who took the 2nd District? All but three of them — Gerald Ford, Al Gore and John Kerry — became president.

That’s why the district is considered a bit of a bellwether nationally.

Richard Nixon also won the 2nd District and the entire state in 1972, the first year that the congressional district method for distributing electoral votes was in place.

Nixon’s victory came four years after Democrat Hubert Humphrey won the entire state in a three-way contest that became the impetus for Maine lawmakers to change to the congressional district method of allocating electoral votes.

Nebraska made the same change in 1992. It too is the focus of attention by Trump and Biden this year.

Time will tell whether either state will factor into who occupies the White House next year. But there’s a good chance Nebraska’s role will be known sooner than Maine’s 2nd District.

That’s because Maine will become the first state in presidential history to use ranked-choice voting to determine which candidate will receive its four electoral votes — that is, if the Maine Republican Party remains unsuccessful in blocking it in the courts.

Ranked-choice voting will also be used to determine who wins electoral votes in either of Maine’s two congressional districts if no candidate wins an outright majority on election night.

DCCC goes dark — for now

The primary fundraising organization for Democratic U.S. House candidates has pulled advanced bookings for its TV ads in the race between Democratic U.S. Congressman Jared Golden and Republican challenger Dale Crafts.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press/file
Associated Press/file
Jared Golden greets workers at the Verso paper mill in Jay, Maine, in Oct. 2018 while campaigning for the 2nd District Congressional seat he ended up winning that November.

The decision by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, is a good sign for Golden, who has been consistently leading Crafts in public polls. The group spent $1.6 million boosting Golden during his 2018 win over Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin.

The move also suggests that Democrats are moving from a defensive crouch in the 2nd District, at least for now.

Crafts’ campaign has been primarily about his loyalty to Trump. The race could tighten if he can draft off the president, who is expected to campaign in Maine this fall.

The DCCC might return to spend on Golden’s behalf if Crafts gains ground. Additionally, its GOP counterpart, the National Repblican Campaign Committee, or NRCC, might invest in the contest.

The NRCC hasn’t so far. It spent nearly $1 million attempting to protect Poliquin in 2018.

So far, the NRCC has only shared some ad costs with Crafts’ campaign. The DCCC is also doing this with Golden’s campaign. But in terms of outright ad spending — frequently described as independent expenditures — neither organization has invested in the 2nd District.

Nor has either group invested in the 1st District contest between Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican Jay Allen.

The Pickle

It was clear early on that the confirmation fight to replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would become an issue in the closely watched Maine U.S. Senate race.

The obvious impact is on Collins, whose bid for re-election was already complicated by her votes to confirm President Trump’s judicial appointments to the Supreme Court and lower courts.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ginsburg’s passing has reanimated the discontent among Democrats and center-left voters, key cogs in Collins’ traditional coalition of support. Polls suggest many of those voters may have already left her, which is why surveys show her either trailing or tied with Democratic challenger Sara Gideon.

The difficulty of winning back those voters was clear when Collins released a statement a day after Ginsburg’s passing stating that a confirmation vote for the gender equality icon’s replacement should take place after the election. The statement didn’t address what she’d do if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fast-tracked the vote anyway and Collins didn’t clarify her stance until three days later.

After describing her initial statement as a “model of clarity,” Collins told a gaggle of Capitol Hill reporters Tuesday that she would vote against the president’s nominee if the vote occurs before the election.

Her critics on the left were not persuaded. The Maine Democratic Party asserted that Collins only made her declaration after receiving a “hall pass” from McConnell, who had already secured the necessary Republicans to vote before the election.

But Collins is also facing pressure on the right to approve the president’s pick regardless of its proximity to Election Day, or the fact that many Senate Republicans blocked President Obama’s 2016 nomination to the high court because it occurred in an election year.

That pressure was also on display this week when President Trump said Collins is inviting the wrath of Maine voters. Whether that wrath actually happens won’t be known until Election Day, but the president’s comments appeared to initiate the process. Shortly after his remarks Trump World surrogates pummeled Collins on Fox News and other conservative media outlets.

The blowback from both sides perfectly illustrates why Collins’ reelection campaign is trying to get the race out of the national conversation and frame it locally. It also shows just how difficult it’s going to be to pull off that strategy.

Originally published 10:06 a.m. September 25, 2020

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.