By Steve Collins
AUGUSTA — Though the Republican congressional primary in Maine’s sprawling 2nd District came down to its final hours with more drama than expected, voters agreed by a wide margin Tuesday to support former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s bid to reclaim his old congressional seat.
The GOP rank-and-file handed him wins in most of the district’s larger cities and towns despite a surprising showing from a little known and poorly funded challenger, Liz Caruso of Caratunk, a tiny town nestled between the Kennebec River and Moxie Mountain in Somerset County.
With 30 municipalities reporting, Hancock County Republicans favored Poliquin 2,264 to 963.
Caruso said late Tuesday she had phoned Poliquin to concede — and promised to get behind him.
“Campaigns are tough, but at the end of the day, we are all Republicans, and it’s time for all of us to get behind our nominee,” she said. “I will be working hard to make sure Bruce wins this seat, and to make sure rural Maine’s voice continues to be heard.”
Results are incomplete but Poliquin won Lewiston, Auburn, Bangor, Paris, Orrington, Oxford, Holden, Dexter and more as he captured what appears to be about 60 percent of the overall vote in a primary that drew only a fraction of district’s Republican voters to the polls. Towns won by Caruso include Farmington, Skowhegan, Bethel, Turner and Livermore.
While greeting voters in Lewiston Tuesday, Poliquin said that “it is time for common sense in Washington” and expressed hope that Mainers will “vote for a change” this year because “the Biden-Pelosi agenda is not working.”
The national Republican Party hailed Poliquin’s win in a late-night tweet that said, “It’s time to flip Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and bring back Bruce!”
Caruso’s increasingly charged campaign, spurred by many Make America Great Again loyalists in rural Maine, reached its pinnacle Monday evening when Fox News host Tucker Carlson put her on his show during a broadcast from his studio in Bryant Pond, giving her national publicity and creating a wave of excitement among the America First faction of the Republican Party.
Though she remained a longshot, GOP officials readily admitted Tuesday they wondered if Poliquin could pull off his anticipated victory.
His apparent win creates a three-way Nov. 8 general election that would look a great deal like the race in 2018 when Democrat Jared Golden of Lewiston defeated Poliquin, then in his second term.
Assuming the early results hold, Poliquin, a 68-year-old Orrington resident, will take on Golden, 39, and 45-year-old independent Tiffany Bond of Portland. Both were on the ballot with him when Poliquin lost the nation’s first federal ranked-choice election.
Poliquin’s name recognition far exceeded Caruso’s throughout the race and his campaign raised 60 times as much money as she did.
Caruso, the longtime leader of Caratunk’s town government, sought to appeal to GOP rank-and-file voters who strongly supported former President Donald Trump.
The only major issue where Caruso and Poliquin strongly differed was about whether the United States ought to provide aid to Ukraine to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.
Poliquin, a former state treasurer, served as the district’s congressman for four years after winning an open seat in 2014.
Though Golden’s 2018 victory over him was one of the closest races in the country, Poliquin did not seek a rematch in 2020. He said he wanted to spend his time with his ailing parents instead.
Golden defeated Dale Crafts of Lisbon two years ago in a race that didn’t include any independent or third-party contenders.
Bond, who is building a house in Sandy River Plantation in the 2nd District, got 6 percent of the vote in the 2018 race. She sought to run for the U.S. Senate in 2020 but could not gather enough signatures to make the ballot, at least partly because COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult to find the types of public gatherings where candidates typically find voters willing to sign their ballot petitions.
As in 2018, with three candidates in the contest, the Secretary of State’s Office will initially determine whether any of the candidates get more than 50 percent of the overall vote. If anyone does, then ranked-choice decisions won’t matter.
But if all three contenders in November fall short of a majority, the one with the lowest vote total will be dropped from consideration and his or her votes redistributed to the remaining pair based on which of them get a second-place nod on those ballots.
That’s what happened in 2018, when enough voters for Bond or independent Will Hoar preferred Golden over Poliquin that the Republican incumbent, ahead after the first round, wound up losing.
Bond said late Tuesday that in 2018, “I showed you all how ranked-choice voting works in a federal election. Shall we win it this year?”
Poliquin brought a federal court case to try to overturn the results in 2018, but a federal judge in Bangor, Trump appointee Lance Walker, rejected Poliquin’s arguments in a lengthy and eloquent decision. Poliquin has never agreed that he lost the race and has argued many times against ranked-choice voting in general.
This year, though, Republicans are eager for a different outcome.
“We’re ready to elect Bruce Poliquin and get rid of Jared Golden,” the Maine GOP tweeted late Tuesday.
Poliquin issued a statement late Tuesday, after hearing from Caruso, which said that “all Republican voters share the same concerns as independents and disaffected Democrats: inflation is out of control, gas prices are too high, our borders are being overrun and our economy is in jeopardy.”
“Joe Biden’s policies are a disaster for Maine and America. Where has Jared Golden been? He has been nowhere in solving these problems.”
Caruso said after her concession that she wanted “to say first and foremost a huge thank you to all the hardworking Mainers who lifted this campaign up: our volunteers, supporters and the thousands and thousands of voters who turned out to send a message to the political establishment.
“No one expected us to do this well tonight. Pundits, press and the political class failed to see what we all knew — that the voters of rural Maine are tired of being ignored, and they’re ready to make a change. Our campaign was a volunteer-driven, grassroots effort, and we showed how powerful this idea can be.
“Although we came up short, I couldn’t be more proud of the campaign we ran. And I’m so proud of the Republicans in CD2 who made their voices heard. I did not win, but the echo of tonight’s result will reverberate through till November, and beyond.
“I’m so thankful to my team, and especially to my family, who stood by my side, and who sacrificed so much for this race. I’m looking forward to the time I’ll get back with them, and I’m looking forward to the impact this grassroots revolution will have on the future of our state and nation.”