AUGUSTA, Maine — Many Republicans in Maine and nationwide are just beginning to accept it, but Donald Trump is the party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
The billionaire starts at a disadvantage. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is leading polls, and if history is any indicator, she’ll win Maine, which has voted for Democrats in presidential elections since Bill Clinton’s election in 1992.
Trump’s rise has come behind a nationalist, us-versus-them campaign: He wants a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and has called for a halt on Muslim immigration to the U.S.
But his message has resonated in white, working-class states such as Maine, and his style recalls that of Gov. Paul LePage, a Trump endorser who has said, “I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.”
Trump faces long odds here, but parts of Maine and places like it could embrace him. Here’s why.
Clinton has an advantage over Trump nationally and in Maine, but both candidates are historically unpopular and her support could be soft.
If today’s polling results held true, The New York Times projects a romp for Clinton in the Electoral College: She’d win everywhere on the east and west coasts besides Georgia and South Carolina while Trump would dominate the south, midwest and Appalachia.
In that configuration, Clinton would win Maine’s four Electoral College votes. The Cook Political Report also projected Thursday that she’d win Maine.
She got 43 percent of support to Trump’s 34 percent in a March poll of Mainers from Critical Insights poll, but her numbers could be softer — a Morning Consult analysis gave Trump a slight edge in the state, though it was within the margin of error with 17 percent undecided.
Both candidates are more unpopular than any nominee in the past 10 presidential cycles, according to FiveThirtyEight. That’s holding true in Maine, with 64 percent in the Critical Insights poll finding Trump untrustworthy and Clinton not far behind at 55 percent.
Michael Cuzzi, a Democratic strategist who has worked for President Barack Obama, said Trump’s rise highlights Democrats’ problems with white, rural, less-educated voters in economically depressed areas, though he said Trump had only “an outside chance” at winning Maine.
“This election is not a slam dunk” for Democrats, Cuzzi said, “and I think anyone who says that is fundamentally misunderstanding the frustration in the electorate with politics as usual.”
Trump’s message on trade is popular in Maine and could resonate in areas wracked by manufacturing job losses.
Trump has been speaking to economic insecurity, saying countries including China and Mexico have “taken our jobs,” a scenario hastened by trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiated by the Obama administration with Pacific Rim countries.
In Maine, where five major paper mills have closed in the past three years, that’s a popular stance. Last month, the Maine House of Representatives unanimously passed a symbolic resolution opposing the Pacific trade deal.
Trump and Clinton have announced opposition to the deal, even though she made statements supporting it when she was Obama’s secretary of state. Her primary opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is backed by labor groups and opposes free trade deals.
Mike Croteau of Anson, president of the steelworkers’ union at the Madison paper mill — which announced in March that it will soon close — said then that many union members support either Sanders or Trump.
That irks former Maine Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash, a Democratic national committeeman who supports Sanders. He’ll vote for Clinton if she’s the nominee, but he doesn’t feel “she has been there or is going to be there on trade deals.”
But Jackson said Trump isn’t the answer, noting that the candidate’s clothing line is made overseas. However, he said he understood why many “may get enamored” with his rhetoric.
“I just wish that people would take a look at the substance,” Jackson said, “and when you do, you’ll see that he’s probably going to make it worse for people when it’s all said and done.”
Because Maine allocates one of its four Electoral College votes to the leading vote getter in each congressional district, it’s possible Trump could walk away with the one assigned to the 2nd District, which elected Republican Bruce Poliquin in 2014 and has been hit hard by the state’s manufacturing decline.
Republicans are uniting behind Trump, and LePage’s tenure has shown the power of a similar message.
LePage was Trump’s only prominent Maine supporter for a while. Now, others are rallying around him. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Bruce Poliquin of the 2nd District haven’t officially endorsed him, but they hedged toward doing so on Wednesday.
Collins told WGAN she could support him if he stops leveling “gratuitous personal insults,” saying he’s “smart enough to tailor his approach.” Poliquin praised him for his trade stances, saying it “will resonate with many Maine people.”
Maine Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, who led Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign here, endorsed Trump after Cruz left the race on Tuesday. He said many Mainers are “tired of political correctness,” as evidenced by the outspoken LePage’s two victories.
“I think people are going to be surprised with what Trump will be able to pull here,” he said, “because I would very much liken his candidacy to that of our governor.”
LePage figures to be a big part of Trump’s Maine effort: At a Lewiston town hall meeting Wednesday, he said he may run against independent U.S. Sen. Angus King in 2018 if he’s not serving in Trump’s administration.
Jackson said that’s a risk he doesn’t want to take and that he’ll work hard to get any Democrat elected because if “people that think Trump has no shot, all they’ve got to do is look at LePage.”
“I’m not taking anything for granted, and I don’t think anyone on the Democratic side should, either,” he said. “There’s a lot at stake.”