SKOWHEGAN, Maine — On a Saturday morning earlier this month, Republicans led by former Gov. Paul LePage gathered in a parking lot to hammer Gov. Janet Mills on a regulatory dispute over a local dam with former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine’s 2nd District in tow.
To draw attention to high costs and inflation in trying to win their old jobs back, LePage and Poliquin pumped gas at a Bangor station in May and bagged groceries the next month in Greene. They headlined October forums in Bangor and Lewiston, then rallied at a Van Buren barn. Poliquin’s campaign and allies have featured LePage prominently in ads.
Ask Poliquin to explain the association and he gives a practiced answer: Major issues facing voters are the same at the federal and state levels, referencing high prices for heating oil — which have crept toward $6 per gallon in places — plus gas and groceries.
“Paul and I seem to be at the same events and have been over the past several months because the issues affect you whether you’re a Republican, Democrat or independent,” Poliquin said after their Skowhegan rally alongside local lawmakers.
The tandem campaign is a recognition of LePage’s status as the most beloved figure among the Republican base. Simply locking them down could deliver the 2nd District to Poliquin in his toss-up rematch of his 2018 race against U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat who showed crossover appeal by splitting the conservative-leaning region with former President Donald Trump in 2020. Independent Tiffany Bond also is on the ranked-choice ballot, as she was four years ago.
It looks like Golden will need to gain a solid share of LePage voters to keep his seat. Poliquin trailed Golden by 8 percentage points in a survey released earlier this month, while LePage had a 4-point lead in the 2nd District — a troubling sign for Poliquin, although strategists in both parties think public polls have been too optimistic for Democrats.
The second-term congressman has been perhaps the most moderate House Democrat, casting votes against spending plans, gun control and police reform measures. Poliquin was a reliable Republican in Congress, although he spent two campaigns publicly avoiding questions on whether he supported Trump before embracing an “America first” line this year.
Poliquin often cites a ProPublica analysis saying Golden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, overlap 83 percent of the time. His campaign has worked to tie Golden to President Joe Biden, particularly after his recent vote for his party’s Inflation Reduction Act.
It looks to be having some level of success. In northern Aroostook County earlier this month, several conservative-leaning voters did not criticize Golden, a Marine veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in personal terms but knew the 83 percent figure by heart.
“He’s with Madam Pelosi and Mr. Biden,” Coyle Huntress, 86, of Limestone said of Golden. “Poliquin has got, to me, a little more class. He’s a bit older, and I think maybe older, wiser.”
But Amy Nightingale, 39, of Caribou is a Republican voting for the former investment manager despite not liking him, calling him “the choice I have” and saying he did not share much with working-class people in the area.
After saying she thought Mills and LePage were capable candidates with successful governorships, Hanna Tenney, 50, of Bucksport said while pumping gas in Fort Kent that she is voting for Golden on a “gut feeling.” While LePage “sticks up for what he believes in,” she does not like Poliquin’s personality.
“I think he just appears a little less truthful somehow,” she said.
One Republican legislative candidate said they have met a small but notable share of voters on the campaign trail who are supporting the party’s candidates along with Golden, largely because Poliquin has a perceived “authenticity” problem that LePage and other Republicans do not. The candidate requested anonymity to speak candidly about those interactions.
Back in Skowhegan, LePage’s criticism of Golden hewed similarly to a common Democratic line during a unsuccessful and massive 2020 campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins: that swing votes generally come when party leaders do not need him.
“As far as I know, he’s a good-enough kid,” LePage said of the 40-year-old congressman. “I just don’t think he understands the big picture.”
Golden has ably played endorsement politics against Poliquin. He won the support of two conservative-leaning police groups. After that, the National Rifle Association, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — all of which backed Poliquin in 2018 — decided not to endorse in the race.
The national and state chambers gave Golden an award in Lewiston last week. Earlier that day, he said he had lunch with some Trump supporters at Simones’ Hot Dog Stand who said they were voting for him in this election.
“My guess is they feel like I’m a straightforward guy who calls it the way I see it and they liked that,” he said.
Those are exactly the kinds of voters that Poliquin needs to woo to get his old seat back. LePage could also benefit from the association with the former congressman as Biden becomes a key Republican bogeyman over Pelosi and Mills, said Keith Herrick, who ran former state Rep. Dale Crafts’ 2020 campaign against Golden. But it is clear who rules the grassroots.
“I think Bruce is a draw, but as we know, LePage is a brand,” Herrick said. “You connect for those reasons, right?”
BDN writer David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.