Poliquin push may be one Republicans come to regret

Turns out state Rep. Trey Stewart does not have such sharp elbows after all. After serving three terms in the Maine Legislature (two in the House, one in the Senate) he entered the Republican primary for the 2nd Congressional District seat. Now he has dropped out, bowing to former Congressman Bruce Poliquin’s effort to regain the seat he lost to now-Congressman Jared Golden in 2018.

Party management of primary elections is serious business. First is the “whose turn is it” question. Members who have been patiently working their way up through the ranks do not take kindly to being pushed aside by ambitious upstarts. Likewise, party officials are reluctant to push aside the dutiful, even in support of the fresh and exciting.

Next comes careful consideration of who the party wants to have competing against each other in a primary. Campaigns have gone from rough-and-tumble to outright brutal. An archive of negative advertising is generated in each race, carefully curated by the opponent’s party and ready to be put to use the next time that candidate runs again. If the party thinks one of its candidates has potential for a future race, it will want to protect him or her from a public trouncing in a party primary.

All it takes to persuade a primary candidate to reconsider is to make it known where party resources will go. Once a party commits to a candidate, the rest of the field becomes the also-rans. Whether or not party support means a candidate will prevail in a general election is another question.

With the stakes high for virtually every U.S. House and Senate seat, the national party will weigh in on primary elections too. It has the machinery to make all the relevant political calculations, but what it may not have is knowledge of the ground game in a given state.

What the national talking heads consider the accepted wisdom on elections may not work in every district, especially in rural areas like Maine. Though they have all the data on previous elections, every vote an incumbent ever cast and every promise he or she ever made, there are intangibles that may resist their shrewdest analysis.

In rural congressional districts the subtleties of personality, language and demeanor are as important as a candidate’s record. This is especially true in a state where voters can meet candidates face to face. The reaction to such an encounter weighs more heavily than TV ads or news interviews.

In the upcoming 2nd Congressional District Republican primary, Bruce Poliquin certainly has name recognition. He served as state treasurer a decade ago during the Paul LePage administration and was a two-term congressman (2015-2019) before losing his seat to Jared Golden. The loss stung. No incumbent had lost the seat since 1916. He had a plurality of the vote but lost under Maine’s new ranked choice voting system. Calling RCV unconstitutional, Poliquin sued to have the results overturned but a federal judge dashed his hopes, striking down Poliquin’s arguments and refusing to order a new election.

Now it is Golden who has the two-term record and Poliquin who is the challenger. This gets us back to Trey Stewart, his entry into the Republican primary and his subsequent withdrawal. Poliquin may have the bona fides to attract national support for his race, but Stewart has an impressive local record.

He served two terms in the Maine House, the youngest member serving, defeating an incumbent Democrat to get there. He was elected assistant minority leader by his caucus in his second term. In 2020, he won a seat in the Maine Senate, ousting incumbent Democrat Michael Carpenter. Could he take down another incumbent in the 2nd CD?

Then came Poliquin’s decision to get into the race. Stewart had previously worked for Poliquin. After what he called “a lot of soul-searching,” he decided to withdraw from the race “out of deference to my friend and mentor, Congressman Bruce Poliquin.” Apparently Poliquin had no such qualms about bumping his friend and mentee out of the race, nor did he spare Stewart the dilemma by letting him know sooner that he, Poliquin, was jumping in.

Republicans may regret this. Poliquin has a lot of baggage from his previous service. Stewart is a fresh face, and an appealing one. The determined and steely Jared Golden might have had a harder time head-to-head with Stewart than he will with Poliquin. He has seen this movie before. Other candidates in the primary, filed or potential, are showing few signs of life.

So far Golden has the Democratic primary to himself, deploying a force field no serious Democrat wants to take on. Thus positioned, he can conserve his resources for the general election. The shift in the roster for the Republican primary is to his advantage.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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