BANGOR, Maine — Just like that, there was one big-name Maine Republican holding out on endorsing presidential nominee Donald Trump: U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of the 2nd District.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins made national headlines on Monday with a Washington Post op-ed in which she joined the small club of top Republican officials who won’t be voting for Trump, the divisive New York City billionaire.
On Tuesday, he talked about virtually everything but Trump in a rangy speech before the Bangor Rotary. When reporters questioned him afterward, he said voters didn’t elect him to be involved in “a presidential campaign that the media’s turning into a circus.”
“You folks are working so hard to ask me everything that has nothing to do with jobs, the economy, energy prices, welfare reform, the heroin epidemic we have in our state, fair trade, keeping our families safe,” he said. “That is what I am focusing on. If that’s your only topic, I am going to move on to someone else. Is that your only topic?”
Poliquin isn’t alone, as other prominent Republicans haven’t backed Trump. But with Collins’ move and Democrats making it a central campaign issue, how long can his holdout last?
His hesitance on Trump has precedent, even if the nominee may be doing OK in Maine’s 2nd District.
Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton are historically unpopular nominees, with national poll averages from RealClearPolitics pegging the Republican’s unfavorable rating at nearly 61 percent to his opponent’s at 53 percent.
It’s less certain how this will play in Maine, which has voted for Democrats in every presidential election since 1992. Trump’s campaign is making a hard push here. He has visited twice since June and is shopping for TV advertising time here, according to the National Journal.
Clinton led Trump statewide in a June poll from the Portland Press Herald, but the race was effectively tied in Poliquin’s rural, more conservative district. Clinton’s unfavorable rating of 62 percent was higher than Trump’s 57 percent.
Still, Poliquin has been virtually silent on the presidential race for months, ignoring questions from reporters on Capitol Hill and playing coy about his attendance at a July meeting between Trump and House Republicans.
After Gov. Paul LePage endorsed Trump in February and Collins’ announcement Monday, Poliquin finds himself alone among big-name Maine Republicans. But other members of Congress haven’t firmly decided yet on Trump, including Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rep. Mia Love of Utah, two Republicans who could be vulnerable in 2016.
Collins’ move and the impending start of a campaign that promises to be bruising are increasing the pressure on Poliquin.
Now that Collins has come out against Trump, “I think that really does ratchet up the pressure on Bruce Poliquin,” said University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer.
He said that Poliquin probably can’t wait until debates begin to tell Mainers where he stands and may be trying to benefit from elements of Trump’s supporters while not seeing a negative bounce because of the candidate.
“I think he’s going to have to take a stand, one way or the other,” Brewer said.
But rank-and-file Republicans don’t seem to be pressuring him on the issue, with Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage saying Tuesday that Poliquin was “on point” focusing on pertinent issues.
“I don’t begrudge anyone coming to the decision they do,” said Assistant Maine Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Newport, who only supported Trump after the primary. “I feel the way you communicate that should be done very carefully because of the influence you may wield.”
But Blaine Richardson, who ran for the 2nd District in 2014 as a longshot conservative independent and is now a Trump-backing Republican legislative candidate in Belfast, said he’s behind Poliquin “because he’s what we’ve got,” but he should give his opinion.
“Bruce needs to get off the fence,” he said. “At least Susan said she’s not voting for him.”
Either way, Cain and her Democratic allies will continue to hammer Poliquin on it. In a statement on Tuesday, her campaign said Collins’ “principled position stands in stark contrast” to Poliquin.
“It’s not too much to ask to have an opinion about these attacks that are in such stark contrast with Maine values,” Cain said in an interview.
She isn’t likely to wring an answer out of her opponent. But his silence won’t stop people from asking legitimate questions about Trump, and paradoxically, it might take the focus off the issues he’d rather discuss.
Voters can expect to hear Poliquin talk a lot more about himself and Cain than Trump and Clinton between now and Election Day, as the incumbent adheres to a disciplined campaign strategy designed to keep the focus on his race and prevent distractions that could dilute his message.
BDN writer Judy Harrison contributed to this report.