Fight­ing for one vote in small-town Maine

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - David Shrib­man Columnist David M. Shrib­man is ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor of the Post-Gazette (dshrib­man@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Fol­low him on Twitter at Shrib­manPG.

Can it be that this small city, known in the 19th cen­tury for its shoe man­u­fac­tur­ing, has emerged as a power cen­ter in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial election? But not just Auburn. Also Millinocket, the old pa­per town. And Presque Isle, in the mid­dle of potato coun­try. Plus Jack­man, whose 859 souls live hard by the Cana­dian bor­der -- and where in some years the ice fish­ing starts while the rest of the coun­try is think­ing about Thanks­giv­ing.

These far-flung Maine com­mu­ni­ties, or­di­nar­ily not even af­ter­thoughts in a pres­i­den­tial election, are at the cen­ter of the bat­tle for the White House be­cause of a pe­cu­liar wrin­kle in a 1972 Maine law that awards a sin­gle elec­toral vote to the can­di­date who wins this con­gres­sional district, which is nearly as large as the states of Massachusetts, New Hamp­shire and Vermont com­bined.

An un­usual con­flu­ence of events con­spires to make this part of Maine a spe­cial tar­get of busi­ness­man Don­ald J. Trump, who, ac­cord­ing to a Maine Sun­day Tele­gram poll, holds a 15-point lead over for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clinton in the area, even though she leads else­where in the state. Might Trump split the state and win this one elec­toral vote?

“No one has ever pulled this off,” said An­gus King Jr., an In­de­pen­dent U.S. sen­a­tor and for­mer gov­er­nor, “but this time it looks like it’s very pos­si­ble.”

This north­ern con­gres­sional district of Maine -- where of­ten the snow is, as Robert Smith put it in his De­pres­sion-era me­moir of life in a Maine log­ging camp, “so deep that it would hide a horse right to his ears” -- is far more con­ser­va­tive than the south­ern district, where the Clinton lead is com­mand­ing. Though the re­gion voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, res­i­dents here are an­gry that this sum­mer the pres­i­dent de­clared Maine’s North Woods a na­tional park -- a de­ci­sion em­braced by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists but that will re­dound to the dis­ad­van­tage of Clinton here. And po­lit­i­cal ex­perts be­lieve there will be a large turnout of anti-Demo­cratic vot­ers, drawn to the polls by a cit­i­zen-ini­ti­ated ref­er­en­dum on back­ground checks for the sale or trans­fer of guns.

The area, more­over, has had its share of eco­nomic strug­gles -- and shares what Sarah Orne Jewett, the beloved Maine nov­el­ist, once called “the gen­eral des­o­la­tion.” Though New Bal­ance has three ath­letic-footwear fac­to­ries in the area, the mills and man­u­fac­tur­ing plants of Auburn, nearby Lewis­ton and else­where are largely gone, potato pro­duc­tion is down, sar­dine can­ning has dis­ap­peared, and log­ging and fish­ing are in dis­tress. Many vot­ers, like Trump sup­port­ers else­where, blame NAFTA for their trou­bles; Canada in this case, not Mexico, is the vil­lain.

The re­sult is a tar­get of op­por­tu­nity for Trump -- and a fast-mov­ing de­fen­sive ac­tion by the Clinton cam­paign.

“We’re get­ting a lot of at­ten­tion right now,” said Paul H. Mills, a Farm­ing­ton at­tor­ney who is an in­de­pen­dent po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst.

With more to come. This may be a sparsely pop­u­lated slice of Amer­ica -- it is the largest con­gres­sional district east of the Mississippi -- but it is rich in po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion.

The Maine op­por­tu­nity hasn’t gone un­no­ticed over the years. Ge­orge H.W. Bush, who has a sum­mer home along the south­ern coast of Maine, put on a small push here, as did McCain. Nei­ther pre­vailed. This year is dif­fer­ent, in part be­cause the con­tro­ver­sial sit­ting gov­er­nor, Paul LePage, is close to Trump -- and the LePage po­lit­i­cal base, in Water­ville where he once served as mayor, abuts this con­tested area.

Then again, the pop­u­lar Sen. Su­san Collins, a Repub­li­can from re­mote Cari­bou in the cen­ter of this district, has in­di­cated she would not vote for Trump.

“This district fight could be real rel­e­vant if the pres­i­den­tial race is close,” said Chris Le­hane, who ran Bill Clinton’s 1992 Maine cam­paign, when he was forced to mo­bi­lize to meet the threat that third-party can­di­date H. Ross Perot, who even­tu­ally came in se­cond to Clinton in the state, might ac­tu­ally win in this district. “I didn’t want to be the only guy in liv­ing mem­ory to lose a sin­gle elec­toral vote.”

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