Former Rep. Bruce Poliquin, Rep. Jared Golden and Tiffany Bond, the candidates in Maine's 2nd District, are shown in these Bangor Daily News file photos.

Former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin burnished “America first” credentials in the only head-to-head debate with Rep. Jared Golden in their race in Maine’s swing 2nd District on Tuesday, trying hard to tie the Democratic incumbent to President Joe Biden.

That exchange on immigration and the border typified both the debate hosted by News Center Maine and the heavily nationalized campaign in a sprawling district that has become a perennial battleground in the last decade and was won twice by former President Donald Trump.

Poliquin was narrowly ousted by Golden in a 2018 race decided by ranked-choice voting. The two-term congressman has become one of the likeliest swing votes in the House, bucking Democratic leaders on major issues from COVID-19 relief to gun control. In a starkly divided Congress, it still means Golden has voted overwhelmingly with his party.

Those truths have defined this year’s election and distinguished it from the more-typical partisan race that the 2nd District saw four years ago. Like that one, the November contest will feature independent Tiffany Bond. The voters who ranked her first helped Golden win in 2018.

Poliquin has adopted one prominent new strategy since then. In both 2016 and four years ago, the Republican refused to say whether he voted for Trump. Early in this campaign, he visited the southern border and refused to say whether President Joe Biden was legitimately elected in 2020. On Tuesday, he noted national “irregularities” but said Maine’s system was secure.

“I believe in securing the border, standing up for Maine first, America first,” he said, repeating a Trump slogan used around immigration, foreign policy and economic policies, “and my opponents do not.”

The line from Poliquin comes after border apprehensions exceeded 2 million from October to August for the first time during a federal fiscal year. Seizures of the deadly opioid fentanyl have also spiked to record highs as the drug fuels increasingly deadly opioid crisis.

At the same time, border policy could be a confounding issue for Poliquin’s campaign. Golden has broken with his party on major issues, unveiling an April bill that would make it harder for Biden to wind down a key expulsion policy and backing border security funding. He said undocumented immigrants are “depressing people’s wages.”

“We need to find a way to do something about that, but it obviously has to be coupled with border security,” Golden said.

The two party candidates had one of their sharper exchanges around the Inflation Reduction Act, the climate, tax and health care measure passed by congressional Democrats in August. It came out of negotiations between Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and Biden after the president’s massive “Build Back Better” agenda was shot down. Golden opposed it last year.

The measure includes $739 billion in new revenue over a decade with $433 billion in spending to reduce emissions, invest in energy development and extend health care subsidies and $300 billion for deficit reduction. While it includes no direct taxes on Americans making less than $400,000 annually, experts have said some effects of a new corporate minimum tax could be passed to consumers.

An often-cited study expects little effect on inflation from the bill. Poliquin derided the measure as the “Higher Inflation Act” and criticized it for allowing 87,000 new IRS employees, although that figure would come over 10 years and would include replacing 50,000 workers who are expected to retire in five years. Golden argued for the law’s energy and health care benefits while saying beefing up the IRS would expedite returns.

The debate is the only one scheduled between the frontrunners after Golden shifted in mid-September to say he would not attend events that all candidates were not invited to. Bond, the independent, often stepped back from the fray, saying she felt like she was watching from home and holding up the ranked-choice voting system.

“You can safely pick me first to go be a professional that represents you and takes the job seriously and looks at unconventional solutions,” she said.

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...