LISBON, Maine ― On Friday evening, Donald Trump wasn’t raging about NAFTA before Ohio workers or scaring Florida retirees about the Islamic State or making noises about a coal revival in Pennsylvania. With a week-and-a-half remaining in the 2016 election campaign, the Republican presidential nominee was in Maine.
“One of the most beautiful places on earth,” Trump purred and then launched into an uncharacteristically focused discussion of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. The crowd, clearly invigorated by the latest news about the inquiry, responded with yelps and whoops more characteristic of a victory speech.
The thing is, Trump’s visit was actually one of the more politically intelligent things he did in a week that saw him stop by Washington, D.C., to hawk his new hotel, congratulate Newt Gingrich on a stupendously awful Fox News interview, and revive his beef with former rival Jeb Bush, who isn’t actually running for president anymore.
The likelihood of a Trump victory on Nov. 8 is still hovering at a percentage typically associated with Harvard admissions, 55-yard field goals and Green Party candidates. But there is one plausible scenario in which Maine could hand Trump the election.
Maine awards two of its four electoral votes to the winner (or winners) of its two congressional districts. Although Trump is almost certainly going to lose the state and the comparatively liberal 1st District, he has been more competitive in the mostly rural 2nd District.
Were Trump to pick up every swing state but Virginia, Pennsylvania and Colorado, a win in Maine’s 2nd District would put him at 270 electoral votes, the bare minimum required to win the presidency. It’s a long shot and would require a particularly large upset in New Hampshire, where Clinton has opened up a 5-point lead. But it’s one of Trump’s best shots.
It deals with real life. Durham resident Todd Beaulieu, on why Maine's 2nd District is fertile ground for Trump
Maine’s 2nd District covers most of the state, stretching from its eastern coast to its western border with New Hampshire and north to the Canadian border. This isn’t the bucolic Vacationland of knit-cap-wearing seamen stacking lobster traps, craggy coastlines, quaint B&Bs and so forth. Instead, this mostly inland district resembles other traditionally Democratic locales, like Ohio, that Trump is targeting in the final days of his campaign.
Maine is the whitest state in the country, and the 2nd District is whiter still. It’s the country’s second-most rural district. Although the area leans Democratic, it is not without a strong base of conservative Christians ― indeed, last Friday’s rally occurred at the Open Door Christian Academy, a private Baptist school.
More significantly, inland Maine has witnessed a major downturn in manufacturing over the last few decades, something that has left many people frustrated with the political process. One of the district’s biggest attractions, Museum L-A (for Lewiston-Auburn), contains artifacts from the area’s economic rise during the Industrial Revolution. The museum is, fittingly, located in a shuttered textile mill.
The 2nd District isn’t teeming with prospective guests for the luxury hotel that Trump was shilling for in Washington or his similarly pricy resort in Doral, Florida, where he held a rally several days prior. This is a working class place whose woes seem magnified by the dreary late fall weather, as the dying leaves have unmasked the state’s very gothic coniferous forests.
“Life is pretty tough out here,” Michael Wentzheimer, a Trump supporter from Lisbon, observed as he walked to Friday’s rally. “People aren’t making the money that they were, and people are struggling a bit more than they were in the past.”
“We’ve had five paper mills close here in the last three years,” said former Democratic state Sen. Emily Cain in an interview with HuffPost. Cain is challenging Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin to represent the 2nd District in Congress. Though she’s running against Trump and the GOP agenda, Cain sympathizes with the discontent that has driven a lot of people in the district to support the real estate mogul.
“When nothing is getting done and yet you see more and more of your neighbors addicted to opioids, when you don’t feel safer, when you hear about veterans waiting for months and months for appointments and you hear about Congress underfunding the VA, you feel like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” said Cain.
Much of the socioeconomic resentment and burn-it-all mentality that has fueled the Trump campaign nationally is evident here in the 2nd District, where disdain for the ever-gentrifying 1st District is never far from the surface.
Trump is going to “deal with reality,” said Todd Beaulieu of Durham. The 2nd District “deals with real life,” he said. Trump, he added, “speaks to us.”
“I think he plays to an anger,” said Lisa Ward, the chair of the Lisbon Democrats. “He’s playing to fear in every way.”
It’s city versus country. A lot of us voted for LePage and the dynamics are similar. Lisbon resident Jason Rowe
The 2nd District has provided a base of support for the state’s controversial Republican governor, Paul LePage, who has been a vocal supporter of Trump and in many way presaged the GOP nominee’s success here with his own unmeasured, often populist rhetoric. LePage made national headlines earlier this year when he claimed that “90-plus” percent of the drug dealers arrested in his state “are black and Hispanic people from Waterbury, Connecticut, the Bronx and Brooklyn.”
“The 2nd District is fertile ground for Trump both because of the same demographic trends we’ve seen across the country but also because Gov. LePage has helped to till the soil through his two elections with a similar extremist style,” observed Mike Tipping, communications director at the Maine People’s Alliance and a columnist for the Bangor Daily News.
Also serving to inflame passions here is a ballot measure that seeks to regulate private gun sales. The area is dotted with lawn signs urging residents to vote no on the measure. “A New York solution to a problem we don’t have,” the signs read, harking back to the us-vs.-them culture wars of the 1990s and 2000s.
“It’s city versus country,” said Lisbon resident Jason Rowe, describing Maine’s political tensions. “A lot of us voted for LePage and the dynamics are similar.”
For Democrats, the scariest thing originating from Maine right now aren’t Stephen King’s books about rabid dogs and murderous clowns, but a bunch of Franco-Americans who drop their Rs so unapologetically that their Ls begin to disappear, too, and it takes a moment to figure out what they mean when they say they firmly support building Trump’s “wah.”
On Friday, Trump told the crowd that his policies “will create 25 million new jobs in a decade and achieve 4 percent growth.”
“You folks could use it, right?” he asked rhetorically.
Trump was selling his candidacy in Maine because he thinks he can win. And the people of the 2nd District may hold the key electoral vote.
Huffington Post reporter Eliot Nelson’s book, The Beltway Bible: A Totally Serious A-Z Guide to Our No-Good, Corrupt, Incompetent, Terrible, Depressing and Sometimes Hilarious Government, is out now.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified former state Sen. Emily Cain as a current member of the legislature.