By Tom Lamia
Oh the fighting that is going on in the trenches of party politics as the midterm elections approach. Both the House and the Senate are on the tipping point of losing (or gaining) a majority of members who would join together to deny the minority a voice in running the country. Whether one thinks that this is a design flaw in the Constitution and must somehow be tolerated for a few years, or is of the contrary view that this is impending disaster that reflects a flaw in our populace that cannot be tolerated any further; either way there is real fear that a new majority will cause a radical change.
One such fight, a critical one, is in Maine’s Second Congressional District. Jared Golden holds the seat, one of two allocated to Maine. The First District is where the well to do and well educated live (Portland, Rockland, Brunswick, Augusta). That seat is safe for Democrats. The Second District covers everything else, from industrial towns (Lewiston) and Maine’s second most populous city (Bangor) to the down east coast (Bar Harbor, Belfast, Machias). Representative Golden’s district includes the vast expanse of the farming and lumbering interior up to the Canadian border and the windswept Acadian coast of adventurous recreation and hideaway second homes overlooking the bold Atlantic.
The Second District is not safe for either party. Trump won the district by nearly eight points in 2020. Golden faced an incumbent in his 2018 run and won by one point. In 2020 his margin against a first time challenger was six points. This year the Republicans in Washington are targeting Golden, out fundraising him six to one (by his count). One would think that the nature of the district (rural), the mood of rural voters and the candidacy of Bruce Poliquin, a two-term incumbent before losing to Golden by a whisker in 2018 when the race was decided by Maine’s ranked choice voting rules, would makes Republicans believe they have a good shot at flipping the seat. Poliquin is fired up and ready to go with money from Republican PACs behind him. This is a battle that could decide control of the House. No stone will be left unturned.
Golden will have some protection locally from his voting record. He has voted with Republicans on several catnip issues—Trump impeachment, background checks for gun purchases, Build Back Better, American Rescue Plan—and has made himself prominent in most of these votes by being the only Democrat to do so. These votes may appeal to the strong conservative makeup of his district but like Senator Susan Collins on the Republican side, by taking positions supported by his opponent’s party he risks losing the support of voters in his own party. The current rigidity in party politics requires nothing less.
Revenge seems to be the motivating passion for both sides in these midterms. Each talks of having been done wrong and of the need to get even. “They did this to us and now we are going to do it to them, only more so.” Trump is the hobgoblin of Democrats so whatever it takes to dethrone him, as party leader and kingmaker will appeal to Democrats. Control of Congress is crucial to achieve this goal. It will determine the fate of the January 6 commission, deflate the ambitions of several Republican leaders and likely strip away a layer of protection against prosecutions.
Few Democrats fall neatly into the categories that Republicans use to describe them (Socialists, Woke Progressives, Ultra Leftists) and few Republicans answer to the pejoratives Democrats use for them (Fascists, Birchers, White Nationalists). Some do, but effective governing and thoughtful debate do not benefit from the name-calling. This wanton hostility does damage to our politics, feeding a trend to negative, partisan attitudes that hold us back. The outcome of this midterm election in Maine is important. More important is the conduct of the candidates and their supporters.
Campaigns can bring out the worst in our political traditions. Negative campaign messages show a lack of respect for the process and the participants. They are characterized by overstatement and shading of facts that incite responses in kind and can lead to violence. There are consequences, as can be seen in our history: Burr and Hamilton, facing off on the New Jersey heights in 1804; the savage caning of Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856; the vitriol-laced rhetoric of Father Coughlin in the 1930s; the treason charges (of McCarthy and the John Birch Society) during the Cold War. There has never been a shortage of fighting words in the halls of Congress or among politicians.
Violence is not a stranger to politics. It is always there on the margin and its presence does not end with victory or defeat in an election. The winner is full of swagger and the loser seeks revenge. We risk more than we think when we cast our differences as “existential” or “Manichean” or even “irrefutable.” There is much good that comes with compromise. We need more of it.
In Maine we have politicians who are known to compromise. There are many examples. Senator Susan Collins is one. Another is Jared Golden. Each has had to deal with the exasperation of those they disappoint when they vote independently.
Democrats worked hard to defeat Susan Collins in the 2020 election, but Collins won. Had she lost, which was expected by many, the Democrats would likely have taken control of the Senate even before the former President did the job for them by angrily trashing the voting process in Georgia and thereby dissuading Republicans from voting, causing the election of two Democrats to the Senate. This gave the Democrats control of the Senate by the slimmest of margins—one seat, plus the vote of the Vice President. The outcome in Maine’s Second District in November could prove similarly critical to control of the House.