Jared Golden leads Bruce Poliquin in 2nd District race likely headed to ranked-choice runoff
Incumbent Democratic Rep. Jared Golden was leading former Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin late Tuesday in the hotly contested race for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.
But with neither candidate receiving 50% of the votes in the three-person contest, the race appears headed for a ranked-choice runoff for the second time in four years — a scenario that likely benefits Golden over his Republican challenger.
With more than two-thirds of precincts reporting, Golden was leading Poliquin 48% to 45% with independent Tiffany Bond holding steady at 7%. Absent a major shift in voter preferences in the outstanding precincts, the race will be decided next week by the second-choice preferences of Bond supporters using the ranked-choice voting process.
That’s what happened in 2018 when the same three candidates faced each other for the first time. Four years ago, Poliquin was a two-term incumbent who had a narrow lead after Election Day but not enough to win the race outright. But when the votes were retabulated nine days later, Bond supporters tipped the scales for Golden, allowing the young Democratic state lawmaker to surge past Poliquin.
It was the first time in U.S. history that a congressional race had been determined by the ranked-choice system, which only comes into play in races involving three or more candidates when no one receives a majority of the votes in the first count.
The former Republican congressman was not conceding the race late Tuesday, however. Addressing supporters and the media at Dysart’s truck stop and restaurant in Hermon, Poliquin told everyone to go home and that they’d regroup in the morning.
“We had a great night,” Poliquin said. “We’ll see where it goes. It’s going to be razor-thin. We told everybody it would (be) and it is ... this is one of the true swing districts in the country.”
Golden was watching the election results privately with his family and inner circle and had not made any public comments. Shortly after polls closed at 8 p.m., however, campaign advisory Bobby Reynolds said they were feeling confident.
“He has shown during the campaign that he is an independent voice for voters,” Reynolds said. “He is proud of the campaign that he has run. He feels now that he has made the case and he is at peace with whatever the decision that the voters make. We are optimistic.”
Maine began using ranked-choice voting during the 2018 elections, allowing voters to list candidates in their order of preference in races. If no one wins more than 50% on Election Day, the last-place finisher is eliminated and their supporters’ second choices come into play. This process continues — eliminating candidates from the bottom up — until someone finally has more than 50% of the votes.
Poliquin contested the ranked-choice election in the courts in 2018 but ultimately lost. He sat out the 2020 election and Golden easily defeated a different Republican challenger. But Poliquin re-entered the fray this year, hoping to be part of a predicted Republican wave that was widely expected to usher the GOP back into power in the House.
National battle comes to Maine
As expected, the race became a battlefront in that larger fight for control of the House.
The national parties and outside groups have funneled more than $21 million into the Maine contest, with much of that spent on negative television advertising. Factoring in the candidates' own expenditures of more than $7 million and 2nd District ranked as the eighth most-expensive House race in the country as of this week, according to tracking by the nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog OpenSecrets.org.
National issues also dominated much of the debate.
From the very beginning, Poliquin sought to link Golden to President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as he blamed Democrats for inflation, high gas and heating oil prices, rising crime rates, the recent surge in fatal drug overdoses and immigration woes.
Many of those were themes right out of the national GOP playbook. But Golden’s voting record and public positioning complicated Poliquin’s campaign messaging.
A Marine Corps veteran who previously represented Lewiston in the Maine Legislature, Golden is among the most moderate Democrats in the 435-member House. As the campaign heated up in recent months, Golden repeatedly cast himself as an “independent voice” in Washington and proudly pointed to his votes against key portions of the Biden and Democratic agendas.
He and a handful of other moderates blocked House votes on Biden’s Build Back Better plan. He was the only Democrat to vote against one of the major COVID-19 economic relief packages and he stood out from his party in votes against gun control bills and police reform.
While Poliquin and his Republican allies correctly pointed out that Golden voted more than 80% of the time with Biden and Pelosi on key issues, his percentages were lower than any other House Democrat.
“I’m an independent voice for you, taking on my own party to stand up for Maine families,” Golden said in a recent ad. “I was the only Democrat to vote against trillions of dollars of President Biden’s agenda because I knew it would make inflation worse ... and I’m fighting Biden’s failed energy policy, forcing him drill more American oil to lower gas prices.”
Independent plays key role
Bond, a Portland attorney who does much of her legal work in the 2nd District, appears headed for another third-place finish as she did in 2018, when there were four candidates on the ballot. As in 2018, she ran a nontraditional campaign this year, eschewing most campaign donations and instead urging supporters to spend that money with local businesses or donate it to charity.
Bond cast herself as the pragmatic outsider whose experience as a negotiator would come in handy in Congress. She described herself as a policy wonk who would not be beholden to the major parties or donors. But without high-profile campaign events or advertising, she was never able to break through the big-money campaigns propping up Poliquin and Golden.
Yet her supporters are once again in a position to decide the ultimate outcome of the election.
Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said earlier Tuesday that any ranked-choice tabulation in the 2nd District race would not happen until next week. That’s because all paper ballots and memory cards containing scanned ballots must be transported to Augusta.