Pessimism about Joe Biden builds behind the scenes among Maine Democrats

By Michael Shepherd, Bangor Daily News Staff

AUGUSTA — While Maine’s elected Democrats are mostly sticking with President Joe Biden, there is behind-the-scenes pessimism among donors and operatives who think the party must pick another standard bearer before Election Day.

It underscores a virtually unprecedented problem for Democrats amid deep concerns about the president’s age of 81 that have heightened since a disastrous debate performance last week against former President Donald Trump. The Republican has expanded a small lead in national polls despite a felony conviction in New York and more legal jeopardy.

Biden has vowed to remain on the ballot, including in a defiant speech in the key swing state of Wisconsin on July 5. But three House Democrats have called for him to step down as the party’s nominee. In Maine, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s swing 2nd District used a op-ed in the Bangor Daily News and Piscataquis Observer to predict a Trump victory. 

Big-name Democrats here have stood by the president, including Gov. Janet Mills. But Politico reported that she warned Biden on a call with fellow governors that Maine could be in play this year. No Republican presidential candidate has won the state since 1988, although Trump won the 2nd District in 2016 and 2020 and is virtually assured to win it again.

Many of the donors and operatives who fuel Democratic politics are anxious. Adam Lee, the chairman of Lee Auto Malls and a large donor to liberal causes in Maine, said roughly half of the donors he knows think the president should be pressured out of the race, while the other half think they should “come up with more money to up the game” to help the president.

Lee, who gave $6,600 to Biden last year, said he and his wife decided before the debate to stop political donations through Election Day, saying it looks like Trump will win and that it is unclear whether a new nominee such as Vice President Kamala Harris would fare better. 

“I said to my wife, ‘Our taxes will go down while the country goes to hell,’” he said. “Not good.”

Similar sentiments run up to those who have carried the party’s banner in Maine, including Ben Grant, a former state party chair and lawyer from Portland. In a Facebook post, he said Harris has room for growth that the president doesn’t have because of the likelihood that Biden can’t assuage voters about his age and cognitive abilities.

The Maine Democratic Party has issued a statement affirming its support of Biden. It is “tuning out the noise and building a strong campaign to win,” Bev Uhlenhake, the current state chair, said in a statement.

Many of those toeing the party’s official line have been engaged in “gaslighting,” according to one Democratic operative who requested anonymity to talk candidly. He noted a recent CBS News poll finding that 72 percent of American voters question Biden’s ability to serve following the debate.

“The Democrats are supposed to be the people-powered party or whatever,” the operative said. “And I’m like, ‘Read the polls. Look at what’s going on. The people do not want this.’”

As a result, Republicans may have one of their best chances in three decades to win the entire state of Maine. Two polls in the spring showed Trump either ahead or virtually tied with Biden, while a post-debate Democratic survey obtained by Puck News showed the race tied here.

The Trump campaign senses an opportunity. Former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who lost the 2nd District seat to Golden in 2018 and is serving as a surrogate for the former president this year, said there will be a special emphasis on running up votes in rural areas including those in outlying areas of the reliably liberal 1st District.

“They’re in a hell of a mess, and they’ve got to get out of it,” Poliquin said of the Democrats. “I’m not sure how they do it, but the American people see it for what it is, and Mr. Trump is likely to be the next president.

In defending Biden, Democrats have pointed to the high stakes of another Trump presidency. Uhlenhake emphasized the former president’s attempts to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden. After this week’s meeting, Mills contrasted Biden’s “record of accomplishment for Maine people over the chaos and ineptitude” that Trump would bring to them.

Another Biden donor, retired Colby College political scientist Sandy Maisel of Oakland, said July 5 that he was hoping that the people around the president were looking for “a graceful way out” that acknowledges the president’s legacy and accomplishments. Biden appeared to be having none of that in Wisconsin.

“I beat Donald Trump,” he said. “I will beat him again.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this article.

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