Tourists wait in line at Red's Eats while Route 1 traffic sits backed up across the Sheepscot River in Wiscasset on Thursday, Oct. 13. 2022. The town, known for traffic delays, historic buildings and a defunct nuclear power plant, is one of the most politically divided communities in the state. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

WISCASSET, Maine — There are swing communities. Then there is Wiscasset.

In the last nine presidential elections, the Lincoln County town on U.S. Route 1 has voted Democratic five times and Republican four times. President Joe Biden won it by just two votes out of 2,300 in 2020, the closest margin of victory in any Maine community.

Once the home of Maine’s only nuclear power plant, Wiscasset is a popular tourist destination known for Red’s Eats, the famed lobster roll stop, in a pretty downtown marked by classical architecture. That is divorced from the more rural inland area. All of it weighs on civic life, split in a way residents say is increasingly evident and even hostile.

“The southern part of the state is all liberal, the real northern is very conservative,” said Bill Maloney, a selectman and chair of the town Republican committee. “And we’re wedged in the middle here.”

Wiscasset is up for grabs again during an election cycle defined by costs and inflation and the overturning of abortion rights by the Supreme Court. The way it splits could help decide Maine’s next governor and Legislature and provide a window into our polarized politics.

At left: A historic, federalist-style house sits on the main thoroughfare in Wiscasset on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. The town, known for its architecture and traffic snarls, is one of the most politically divided communities in the state; At right: Lisa Tichy walks her dog in Wiscasset on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. Tichy said she doesn’t think most people understand how politically divided her town is these days. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The prevailing theory for the divide is simple: There are more liberals living downtown, many of whom grew up elsewhere, and more conservative ones in the town’s outskirts in the north around the Wiscasset Speedway and away from Route 1 on a southern stretch.

That divide may have grown around national issues, but there are also disputes close to home. A 2016 story in the Bangor Daily News noted chaos in local government, from resignations of officials to upset citizen groups and referendum questions on small matters, including one on whether firemen could continue to wash their cars at the station. It was approved.

Lisa Tichy, 63, who is voting for Gov. Janet Mills and lives downtown, said Thursday that many of the older residents who had lived their whole lives in Wiscasset tended to be more conservative, and admire the brash style of former President Donald Trump and former Gov. Paul LePage, the Democratic governor’s chief opponent in the November election.

“You don’t see crossover,” Tichy said. “There are conservatives and liberals, and the two do not meet in any way, shape or form.”

Conversely, David Sprague, 55, who lives in the more rural part of Wiscasset and works  downtown at the pierside Sprague’s Lobster, admires LePage, comparing his message to Trump’s and saying his economic policies “would put people back to work.”

Tourists were still coming to Wiscasset on Thursday. The fall season is a big one for the lobster shack. But the economy has been hard for the business, Sprague said. His 73-year-old mother had been forced to work around the clock due to the lack of help. Rising costs have made it harder to turn a profit.

“We’re almost giving stuff away at cost,” Sprague said.

Independent Maine House District 47 candidate Evan Goodkowsky takes a break from canvassing to speak with a reporter in Wiscasset on Thursday, Oct. 13. 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The divides are so strong that they encouraged a former Democrat running for a Maine House of Representatives seat to leave his party. Evan Goodkowsky, 31, an assessor who also works on expanding broadband in Lincoln County, said he wanted to reach voters easier.

“There’s a lot of people that feel that they can’t talk to somebody of the other party,” Goodkowsky said. “I wanted to be independent to have the door more open.”  

Wiscasset’s odd House race features another independent — former Rep. Les Fossel of Alna, who served as a moderate Republican — and former selectman Ed Polewarczyk, the Republican nominee. The district also includes Alna, Jefferson and Whitefield.

A warning sign sits posted under electricity transmission lines at the site of the former Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in Wiscasset on Thursday, Oct. 13. 2022. The plant generated about 119 billion kilowatt hours of electricity from 1972 through 1996. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Economic worries are paramount for Wiscasset voters. Maine Yankee, the nuclear plant, once produced a quarter of the state’s power. When it was decommissioned in 1996, it paid 91 percent of the town’s property taxes. Its closing precipitated a far smaller K-12 school population and a higher property tax rate.

Desiree Bailey, 39, who owns a local salon and tea room and is on the school board, said she had found people to be increasingly public about their politics over the last five years. She can often quickly figure out which party someone identifies with even if they don’t say it.

Bailey said she cannot bring herself to vote for Mills again. She is worried about inflation and its effect on her businesses, but she was most upset that the governor left decisions on masks to school boards, creating lasting distrust.

“I thought she threw us under the bus,” Bailey said of the governor.

Desiree Bailey speaks with a reporter in a Wiscasset supermarket parking lot on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Some view their ballot through a national lens. Vince Salvitti, 70, a retired real estate agent who recently moved here from Pennsylvania, was watching the last of the congressional hearings on the Capitol riots of Jan. 6, 2021, in his home adorned with a Mills lawn sign on Thursday, saying he was furious at Republicans and Trump for putting party over country.

“They are more interested in keeping their jobs than in the country and taking care of people,” Salvitti said. “That’s a general feeling I have about Republicans.”

As the leader of the local Republicans, Maloney said he was most worried about getting them out to vote in this political environment.

“Some of them have kind of thrown their hands up,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the number of times the Democratic and Republican parties won Wiscasset in the last several presidential elections.