U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine's 2nd District listens to lobstermen speak at a rally on the Portland waterfront on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

FARMINGTON, Maine — On the Sunday afternoon before Election Day, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District was not headlining a rally. His campaign issued no press releases. A reporter had to be tipped off about where to find him.

He was in the back room of a sports bar in Farmington, drinking beers with a few supporters and two staffers while watching a New England Patriots game. When Tuesday came around, he did not greet voters or hold a media-filled election night party. He instead watched results come in with family, friends and staff at his parents’ home in Leeds.

When asked whether he was eyeing any other office down the road, Golden asked what the point would be, paraphrasing the late Colin Powell by saying one should never tie their ego to their position while noting politicians that mapped out presidential runs but never won.

“They all had a master plan,” he said.

Golden had to do things differently than other Democrats to win a third term, which became official Wednesday after he defeated former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin in a ranked-choice count. In the first round of voting, Golden won the conservative-leaning district by a greater margin than former Gov. Paul LePage did in his challenge to Gov. Janet Mills. He also split it in 2020 with former President Donald Trump, whom Golden narrowly outpolled.

Whether he is courting the attention or not, his victory thrusts the 40-year-old centrist into higher-office speculation. Those close to him see an easy choice for Democrats if they want to win. But a primary could be a vulnerability, with a strong victory from Gov. Janet Mills potentially leading liberals to think a more strident candidate could win on the strength of big margins in southern Maine.

The 2nd District has been Maine’s top proving ground for statewide political prospects. From the 1940s until Poliquin’s four-year tenure ending in 2019, only two of the people who represented the 2nd District did not run later for statewide office. The district produced four senators — Margaret Chase Smith, William Hathaway, William Cohen and Olympia Snowe — and a governor in John Baldacci.

No statewide office will be open for certain until 2026, when Mills is term-limited. But U.S. Sen. Angus King, a 78-year-old independent who caucuses with Democrats, will announce in December whether he will run for a third term in 2024. Those in both parties expect crowded primaries for the prestigious seat if it comes up in two years.

Bobby Reynolds, one of U.S. Rep. Jared Golden’s advisers, speaks to members of the media after the polls close in Maine, Nov. 8, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Golden is genuine in saying he is not plotting out a future campaign, cautioned Bobby Reynolds, his political strategist. But he then argued if Golden wants it, Democrats should give the congressman the next statewide nomination “by acclamation,” even though that is unlikely.

“Culturally identifying with the interior of the state is important to win a statewide race,” he said.

The congressman has made his reputation on a series of party-bucking votes against parts of President Joe Biden’s spending agenda, gun control and a progressive policing overhaul. He was the only member of Congress to split his votes on two Ukraine-related impeachment articles against Trump in 2019.

Overall, he is the most conservative House Democrat on fiscal issues, according to VoteView. But he is progressive on some others. One of his first floor speeches in 2019 ended up being an argument with the chamber’s top Republican over campaign finance reform. He championed a sweeping federal tribal sovereignty bill this year that was opposed by Mills and King.

He has tacked right on some issues since his first run in 2018. During that primary, he embraced universal background checks on guns before voting against them in Congress and becoming an ally of the gun-rights Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. Golden also rejected “Medicare for all” during his 2020 campaign after running on it the first time around.

This has led to a cool reception among progressives. One pre-election poll showed Golden’s approval at only 54 percent among Democrats in his district. It did not matter much in this election with left-of-center voters having nowhere else to go, but it could in a primary.

Citing his health care stances, opposition to outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and many of Biden’s key proposals, Betsy Sweet, a progressive lobbyist from Hallowell who has run for governor and Senate, said Golden has “stepped on some toes.” While many voters decide on personalities over issues, other Democrats could also be formidable.

“I think there are a number of people who could fit that category, and so I don’t think it’s a slam dunk for him,” Sweet said.

A string of success at the state level has led to a large pool of Democrats who could seek high office. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District, entering an eighth term, would be formidable in any primary. Other prospects for high office could include Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, outgoing House Speaker Ryan Fecteau and 2020 U.S. Senate nominee Sara Gideon.

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows looks towards a monitor and camera as she speaks to the public during a Facebook Live feed that was part of ranked choice tabulations at a state office building in Augusta, on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. Credit: Rich Abrahamson / The Central Maine Morning Sentinel via AP

Golden’s supporters may not be the most enthusiastic in a primary election, but Reynolds noted that he has a tested political operation and has been underestimated before. His coalition could be the broadest in a general election.

It led David Trahan, a former Republican lawmaker who now runs the sportsman’s alliance, to say it would be an electoral “no-brainer” for Democrats. His group gave both Golden and Poliquin high marks and endorsed neither, but he said it could vocally oppose a candidate like Pingree, who backs gun-control measures.

“In no scenario do I see a liberal Democrat winning in the 2nd District, but I can certainly see Golden staying close and winning big in the 1st, which puts him in the seat,” he 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...