Former U.S. Rep Bruce Poliquin stands by a segment of the U.S.-Mexico border wall on a trip to Texas earlier this month. He and other Republicans are highlighting border issues ahead of the 2022 elections. Credit: Contributed

No congressional district in the lower 48 states is farther from the southern border than Maine’s 2nd District.

But former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican aiming for a 2022 rematch with Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, was in Texas earlier this month to highlight what he described as a “chaotic” border situation that could have importance in this year’s midterm elections.

Attention to the border is consistent for Poliquin, who was hawkish on immigration during his four years in the House. His recent push reflects Republican attempts to run on the issue in 2022, even though Golden — a top target for Republicans in a district twice won by Trump — has generally voted with them on border measures during his two terms.

Poliquin was one of several candidates to visit the border in a trip led by Rep. Anthony Gonzales, R-Texas, who is helping lead Republican efforts to take back the House. The group met with Border Patrol agents, held a news conference and circulated photos of members at the border wall. Poliquin and Gonzales also spoke with a Maine talk radio station.

In an interview with the Bangor Daily News from the El Paso airport, Poliquin blamed Democrats for the border situation, noting a significant increase in the number of migrants aiming to cross into the U.S. in 2021 as well as more seizures of dangerous drugs such as fentanyl.

“The reason those numbers are higher than they’ve been in two decades is because the current administration and the majority party has effectively opened up the border,” Poliquin said.

Most of the migrants involved in the record 1.6 million encounters with the U.S. Border Patrol during fiscal year 2021 were removed from the country. President Joe Biden’s administration has angered progressives by retaining a pandemic-related Trump order expelling migrants on public health grounds, making exceptions for unaccompanied children and some families. 

The Democratic president tried to repeal a Trump program making most asylum seekers stay in Mexico while awaiting hearings in the U.S., but the attempt was blocked in federal court.

Describing the challenges for overworked Border Patrol agents, Poliquin pointed to a range of solutions that he would pursue if elected, including increased funding, more judges to expedite asylum cases, money for a border wall, better technology, and stronger investments in Central American countries to address the root causes of migration.

He declined to identify specific disagreements with Golden, saying instead that it was a matter of differing party priorities.

“There’s been no legislation that I can see that the Biden administration and the majority party — Democrats — in Congress have put forward to fix this problem,” Poliquin said.

Golden’s office noted the congressman repeatedly voted in favor of funding for border security, including physical barriers, since taking office in 2019. The Lewiston Democrat also bucked his party to oppose so-called “sanctuary cities” where local law enforcement are limited from collaborating with immigration enforcement, and recently cosponsored a bill led by Rep. Austin Pfluger, R-Texas, aiming to help Border Patrol crack down on cross-border tunnels.

“The congressman believes the situation at the southern border is evidence that we need immigration reform in America,” spokesperson Nick Zeller said. “He believes we must prioritize border security to stop drug trafficking and discourage illegal entry into the country while working to improve the legal immigration system.”

Immigration became a last-minute issue ahead of the 2018 midterms — the first election between Golden and Poliquin — when Trump stoked fears about a so-called “caravan” of migrants headed toward the border in October. But it has not grabbed the spotlight in the same way since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with even the former Republican president talking less about it during his 2020 presidential campaign than he did in 2016.

It is still a major issue for Republicans. National polling from Echelon Insights, a Republican-affiliated pollster, in December found all voters disapproved of Biden on immigration policy more than any other issue, with just 39 percent rating his performance positively. But it was much more salient among Republicans, with 17 percent considering it the biggest issue facing the U.S. compared to only 4 percent of Democrats.

Outside groups, such as the conservative American Action Network, have highlighted the border in paid advertising targeting Golden, with one digital ad arguing he should “stop the Biden border crisis.” But the issue has not been featured as frequently as spending and inflation.

The outside spending, which has already surpassed $2 million, may just be getting started, however. The 2018 race between Poliquin and Golden set the record for the most expensive U.S. House race in Maine’s history to that point.

Highlighting immigration in the 2nd District fits with a broader Republican strategy of painting this year’s elections as a more generic fight between parties in a year where Republican voters may be more energized, said Mark Brewer, a University of Maine political scientist.

“One of the things if you’re Bruce Poliquin you want to do is try to convince Maine 2nd District voters not to pay attention to Golden the individual, but to kind of paint him with a brush of Democrats more broadly,” Brewer said.