Former Rep. Bruce Poliquin, Rep. Jared Golden and Tiffany Bond -- FOR ELECTION GUIDE

AUGUSTA, Maine — U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District reversed himself Wednesday to say he would not debate former Rep. Bruce Poliquin without an independent on the stage, jeopardizing the second of two debates set between the frontrunners.

It is an extension of a fraught history around debates between the Democratic congressman and his Republican challenger. With Poliquin as the incumbent in 2018, the two only went head to head twice, less than usual in major Maine elections. This year, they each agreed to three debates, but only two of them were with one another.

Golden, a two-term Democrat, shook that up further on Wednesday evening when he issued an open letter saying he would not move forward with one of the two debates that both party candidates had already agreed to. He cited criteria that would likely keep Portland lawyer Tiffany Bond, the independent on November’s ranked-choice voting ballot, from participating.

That Oct. 5 debate, hosted by WABI of Bangor, WAGM of Presque Isle and the nonprofit Aroostook Partnership, will require candidates to reach 15 percent support in a pre-debate poll, in line with presidential debate standards.

A Golden withdrawal will just leave a Sept. 27 debate with WCSH of Portland and WLBZ in Bangor as the only one between the candidates after Poliquin declined an all-candidate debate from Maine Public and Golden rejected one with a 5 percent threshold from the Bangor Daily News and WGME of Portland, saying he would only commit to three debates.

When Golden agreed to the Aroostook County debate, he knew about the 15 percent cutoff. But his strategist, Bobby Reynolds, said after examining debates further, the congressman feels that one debate with all three candidates was “not enough” for the voters.

Golden used his letter to pressure Poliquin on the Maine Public debate and chided media organizations for “arbitrary” standards, citing the role that Bond’s voters could play in the race after her small group of voters helped tip a 2018 ranked-choice runoff in Golden’s favor as he narrowly ousted Poliquin.

“I look forward to debating both of my opponents and am optimistic we can give the voters what they deserve: all three debates with all three candidates,” Golden said.

Poliquin’s campaign looked unwilling to indulge the new challenge, with campaign manager Ben Trundy saying he was trying to “dial back and hide his positions from the voters” by backing away from one debate.

There are clear political considerations for each of the major candidates here. Poliquin railed against ranked-choice voting both before and after his 2018 loss. He is now replaying a strategy of asking supporters to simply rank him first in the upcoming election.

His debate strategy could be read as trying to avoid elevating Bond to depress the effect of ranked-choice voting, while Golden has a countervailing incentive to have Bond appear next to him. But his stance so far does not look like it is going to prompt his main opponent to change course and media outlets are wary of letting candidates pressure them on criteria.

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...