JAY, Maine — The union hall here is decaying. A joking sign on the door calls it a “nursing home” due to the rising ages of the regulars.

Standing outside on Wednesday was 77-year-old Bob Roy. He has been retired from the paper mill here for 15 years after a working-class career that supported a home and the silver 1957 Pontiac Chieftain parked in the hall’s lot that he called his “baby.”

Roy has only voted for one Republican in his life — former U.S. Sen. William Cohen in 1990. He is the kind of voter that kept Jay so Democratic for so long and still sees his party and organized labor as strongly connected.

“I’m all for labor, all for unions,” Roy said. “I’ve worked for unions most of my life, and they’ve always treated me good.”

A motorcycle passes the Pixelle Specialty Solutions paper mill in Jay on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. The mill is slated to close next year. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Now there are fewer voters like Roy. With an economy built on union jobs, Jay was once the epitome of a Democratic bastion. Then former President Donald Trump came along. The Androscoggin Mill, which once employed 1,500 people, is shutting down next year and will lay off 230 after a massive digester explosion in April 2020.

Though some Democrats have performed well there recently, Jay is one of the many mill towns in Maine and across the country that went heavily for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 before flipping to Trump in 2016 and 2020. Some Democrats think they can regain ground there in November even with politics here growing ever more nationalized.

Glenda DiPompo talks with a reporter inside the Jay convenience store she opened in 1975 on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. DiPompo said the impending paper mill closure in town won’t affect her Riverside Kwik Stop business much because customers will always want beer and cigarettes. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The Riverside Kwik Stop has long been a stop for mill workers craving beer, cigarettes and other products after long shifts. Glenda DiPompo, who has owned it for 50 years, conceded there are many Republicans in town who believe everything Trump says.

But she argued Jay is still fundamentally working-class and Democratic. She said good things about Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat from nearby Farmington, saying she fears for the future of abortion rights if former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, is elected in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“If LePage gets back in, he’ll do away with it,” DiPompo said.

Megan Dion and her children Katherine, 10, and Daniel, 8, stop for a photo outside a discount store in Jay on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. Dion homeschools her children and plans to vote for Paul LePage in November because of his support for school choice. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Republican voters have their own national concerns. Megan Dion, who lives in Livermore but was shopping at the Dollar Tree in Jay, plans to vote Republican. While she is concerned about inflation and the economy, her biggest worry is what is being taught in classrooms.

“As far as school children go, they need to learn education, not be indoctrinated,” she said.

Both parties will be watching Jay for signals. U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of the 2nd District, a Democrat, won it easily in 2020 along with other similar western Maine towns, including Rumford, Mexico and neighboring Wilton, while Mills nipped Republican Shawn Moody here in 2018. LePage won Jay in his 2010 and 2014 elections.

Many in Jay on Wednesday were ready to talk about national and local issues, but few seemed to think of the mill closure — announced a week earlier — as overtly political. It did not surprise them since the explosion led the owners to idle the damaged pulp mill, which then had to bring pulp in from other sources. That ate into profits as energy prices rose.

Several workers coming in and out of work declined to comment on the upcoming election outside the mill in the afternoon. “I’m not really into politics,” a young man said.

The swing nature of the town has filtered down to local offices. Rep. Sheila Lyman, R-Livermore Falls, defeated Democratic incumbent Christina Riley in 2020 by 13 percentage points. This year, Lyman, a retired teacher and the sister of Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, is facing Democrat Tamara Hoke, the director of Jay’s public library.

Tamara Hoke is the Democratic candidate for Maine House District 76, which includes Jay, Livermore Falls and part of Livermore. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Hoke attributes the move toward Republicans to economic hard times. Some politicians have succeeded in pitting working-class people against the less fortunate, she said. The challenger wants to prioritize expanding economic opportunities in Jay beyond the mill and strive to reverse recent population loss.

“I think people are excited and they would like to see a Democrat win the seat back,” Hoke said. “I definitely think there’s a chance.”

A large group of political signs stand in a Jay field on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. In recent presidential elections, the town voted twice for Obama and twice for Trump. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Lyman said she had built deep ties within her district by being easily accessible and frequently connecting constituents to resources.

Speaking about abortion, Lyman said it was a “private matter” between a woman, her significant other and a doctor. If reelected, she hopes to do what she can to address the “tragic” effect that the mill closing could have on her district and its local businesses.

“I feel that it’s my job to get out there and talk to folks,” Lyman said. “My focus is going to stay on what I want to do for folks and what I hope to do for our community.”

Independent voter Donna Gemelli stops to talk in a Jay grocery store parking lot on Wednesday Sept. 28, 2022. Gemelli said the abortion issue will motivate her at the polls this November. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

It will be key for either side to turn out voters like Donna Gemelli, an independent who said she “votes for the person, not the party.” She plans on voting for Democrats down the ticket, saying she had friends whose lives had been helped by abortions. She thinks many other women will do the same.

“You vote for governor every so many years,” Gemelli said. “But I think they’re going to be coming out now just for that.”