When Democrat Conor Lamb, a thirty-something Marine and attorney, narrowly won a special election last week in Pennsylvania, people around the country took notice.
Lamb’s life story was compelling and he ran a campaign discussing kitchen table issues. He pledged to work across the aisle while taking a stand against the priorities of the Republican Congress, proclaiming, “Within 12 hours of giving away our tax dollars to the wealthy and big corporations, Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he would try to pay for it by coming after Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid. . . It’s not right, and I will fight every attempt to break the promises we made to our senior citizens, working families and children.” Lamb touted teachers and critically observed that, “Republicans in Congress spent the past year trying to take health insurance away from people with no plan to replace it.”
What really caught pundits’ and politicians’ attention was the huge shift in Pennsylvania and what that could portend for the November elections.
In 2016, Donald Trump won the congressional district by 20 percentage points and it was such a secure seat for Republicans that no Democrat challenged the incumbent, Rep. Tim Murphy. Then scandal struck. Murphy, who is married, resigned in October after his mistress released text messages from the publicly anti-choice congressman asking her to have an abortion. Republican Rick Saccone stepped into the race.
Before the election, most thought that it would be be remarkable if Lamb even came close. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence came to campaign for Saccone. More money was spent by or for the Republican — $11.9 million — versus $6 million for the Democrat. And yet the Democrat prevailed.
Now there are more than 110 House districts where Trump won by a smaller percentage than the district Lamb won. If Democrats captured even a quarter of those, Republicans would lose their majority in the US House of Representatives.
And among the districts Trump won by 20 points or less is Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, a seat currently held by Rep. Bruce Poliquin.
No two campaigns are exactly alike, but issues, the political environment, and contrasts with other candidates could make Poliquin vulnerable.
Poliquin’s positions make him a Paul Ryan Republican. In 2014 Poliquin said the country is spending too much on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He proposed raising the Social Security retirement age, which would make people work longer for the same benefits or retire with less money to live on. Last year Poliquin voted to slash health care spending in two major pieces of legislation: a budget outline and the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Poliquin also voted for a law with new big loopholes for Wall Street and for another that ended the requirement that financial planners act in their clients’ interests. He supported the Trump tax cuts; ads about the issue were abandoned in Pennsylvania because they weren’t resonating.
Poliquin represents a district that voted for Trump but also for a minimum wage increase and Medicaid expansion.
The potential Democratic nominees bring their own experiences and each pledges to be more accessible than Poliquin, who has a tendency to duck questions and told supporters that engaging would provide “ammunition” against him.
Jonathan Fulford is a farmer and businessman who is staunchly progressive. Lucas St. Clair has a background in business and in initiating a new national monument. Craig Olson has served in local government. Jared Golden joined the Marines after the Sept. 11 attacks, worked for Sen. Susan Collins in Washington, and became a leader in the Maine Legislature where he represents Lewiston. Perhaps because of his greater experience in government, Golden’s website has the most information about his policy positions.
However, this race is far from a cake walk for whomever wins the Democratic nomination.
When there’s a wave election, incumbents still have all kinds of advantages, such as name recognition and fundraising, and typically constituent service and accomplishments. Poliquin starts with a huge monetary advantage and he has a base and an experienced, savvy political consultant who helped Poliquin win the district twice by strong margins.
As a blue wave looks to be forming nationally, it’s going to turn some congressional districts. Maine’s 2nd Congressional District could be one of them.