Hamza Mohsin, foreground, uses his hands to paint a flag of one of many nations within the community Wednesday afternoon, July 13, 2022, at the corner of Bartlett and Birch Streets in Lewiston, Maine. The unique mural is part of a project called "CITY OF US" spearheaded by Lewiston teacher, Eamon White with a grant from the city of Lewiston's public art projects. Credit: Russ Dillingham

Maine’s twin cities always seem to find a way to the center of Maine politics.

The Franco-American center of Lewiston and Auburn has been pivotal in elections dating back to the 1970s, swinging between Democratic and Republican victors in key elections.

A wave of African immigration to the two cities since 2000 now makes Androscoggin County the youngest and most diverse one in Maine. Because of that, it is the Maine county most closely resembling the U.S. as a whole.

Over the years, there have been few elections with a more direct line through Lewiston than the one this November. Gov. Janet Mills is from Farmington, but the Democrat cut her teeth in politics as the first woman to serve as a Maine district attorney based mostly in Lewiston. Former Gov. Paul LePage was born there. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District lives there now and is from nearby Leeds. His opponent in a nationally targeted race, former Rep. Bruce Poliquin has Franco heritage and family ties there.

In 2020, the county was won by former President Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Golden. Trump lost Lewiston and Auburn. Mills lost the county in 2018, but she won Lewiston and Auburn. LePage, a Republican, won the county and the two key cities in his 2010 and 2014 elections.

In the past few years, a north-south trend of political polarization has escalated in Maine. The Portland suburbs have grown more Democratic by party registration, while inland areas are generally more red. The Lewiston area was polarized already, and it has not grown much more. The cities are slightly more Democratic than they were in 2018, while the rural and conservative areas in the north and west are only a pale shade redder.

Early polling in the Mills-LePage race shows a close statewide race composed of bloody electoral matchups for both candidates in each congressional district. One spring survey showed Mills leading in the liberal 1st District by about 14 percentage points, with LePage up by nearly that much in the 2nd District. She has had only narrow leads so far in public polls that are largely backed up by internal polling that I have heard about from sources in both parties.

Winning Lewiston may be slightly harder for LePage this time, with only the little-known independent Sam Hunkler on the ballot alongside him and Mills in 2022. The winning statewide map for the Republican probably includes a close margin around Lewiston, not getting crushed in the Portland suburbs and running up a big margin in the 2nd District overall. The 1st District should go for Mills handily. If she runs up huge margins there, she can hold on.

The candidates’ personal histories, Maine’s political geography and the Lewiston area’s obstinate group of swing voters make the area the fulcrum of the biggest races this year. Reporters will be spending a lot of time at Simones’ Hot Dog Stand. That’s always a lunch deal that is OK with me.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...