LEWISTON, Maine (AP) — Democrat Jared Golden, who served in the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, wields a bolt-action rifle in a television ad in his campaign against two-term Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin.
Golden accuses Poliquin of taking potshots. Then he hits the bullseye.
The 36-year-old Democrat is following a political playbook that Democrats have adopted nationwide in their quest to claim the House majority this fall.
Golden is one of nearly 200 veterans, including 61 Democrats, who are running for Congress, according to With Honor, a super PAC. Most, like Golden, are eager to highlight their military service and pro-gun platforms in regions Trump carried two years ago.
Democrats like Golden are balancing an embrace of gun ownership with a populist economic message railing against Trump’s signature tax cut as giveaways to the wealthy and efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act, while promising to protect Social Security and Medicare.
It’s the same message that helped Democrats score an unlikely special election victory in Republican-leaning western Pennsylvania this year.
In Maine, the 64-year-old Poliquin is accusing his challenger of deploying camouflage to hide his liberal views. “Jared Golden is really going out of his way to hide the fact that he’s a young radical with a socialist agenda,” he told The Associated Press.
“No one believes that I’m a socialist,” Golden shot back in an interview. “It’s a bankrupt message from a bankrupt politician.”
The harsh words underscore the stakes in Maine’s sprawling 2nd Congressional District, where the race is one of the most competitive and vital to Democrats’ efforts to retake the House. Millions of dollars are pouring into the region.
Conventional wisdom suggests Poliquin should be safe. No challenger has defeated an incumbent in the district in more than 100 years. But polls indicate the two are locked in a close race, with two independents lagging far behind.
Golden won a three-way primary using ranked-choice voting . The ranked-choice system figures into the calculus again because it will be used for the first time in a federal race in modern times.
Under the system, voters rank candidates from first to last on the ballot. If there’s no majority winner, then the last-place candidate is eliminated and the losing candidate’s votes are reallocated in additional voting rounds until someone captures a majority.
The campaign battle is being fought in the largest district east of the Mississippi, with tiny fishing villages, mill towns, potato farms and vast miles of wilderness.
For years, this district was represented by a conservative “blue dog” Democrat, former paper mill worker Mike Michaud, whom Poliquin succeeded. Democratic President Barack Obama won re-election in 2012 by 9 percentage points in the district.
Four years later, Republican Donald Trump’s message resonated with voters frustrated by mill closings and economic struggles. His 10-point victory allowed him to collect an electoral vote in Maine, one of two states that can split electoral votes.
Poliquin said Maine’s economy is improving, with low unemployment, thanks to GOP efforts to lower tax rates for small businesses and families, cut red tape and fight bad trade deals.
Golden, a state representative, sees a different economic reality, with middle-class manufacturing jobs replaced by low-paying service jobs. Workers can’t afford their insurance and can’t afford to retire, he said. He wants to expand health care and invest in infrastructure.
Poliquin worked in Chicago and New York before becoming a single parent when his wife died in 1992. He left New York City four years later to return to Maine.
Golden enlisted in the Marines after the Sept. 11 attacks and served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and he doesn’t hide the tattoos he got while in the Marines. He attended Bates College and worked for Republican Sen. Susan Collins before going into politics himself.
His military service and views on the 2nd Amendment fit with the district. He supports gun ownership “as long as you’re not a criminal, felon, would-be terrorist or a danger to society.” He even supports the sale of assault rifles. But the National Rifle Association is backing Poliquin, who holds the gun group’s top rating.
Sandy Maisel, a Colby College political science professor, said he’s the perfect Democratic candidate for a conservative, rural district. “I can’t imagine the Democrats finding a candidate who’s better,” he said “He’s a veteran. He’s a person of the people. There’s no pretense.”
Outside money will likely outpace the record from two years ago, when more than $14 million poured into the race, underscoring the importance of the seat.
Voters think it’s going to be close.
Weldon Carmichael, owner of Carmichael & Son Construction in Skowhegan, sees it more as a battle between conservatives and liberals than Democrats vs. Republicans. He said he’ll vote for Poliquin because he thinks conservatives offer the best path forward.
“Politics are so sickening today. It’s pathetic,” the 66-year-old said. “They’re not there for what they do for the country. They’re there for money that they can draw from the taxpayers.”
But Joline Beam, a Democrat, said Golden’s legislative experience, military service, his accessibility and youthful energy all make him an attractive candidate.
“The race is very tight. It’s going to be interesting,” said Jimmy Simones, from Simones Hot Dog Stand, an eatery that’s a popular place to discuss politics.
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