As Democrats in the House of Representatives geared up finally to hold the much-awaited vote on President Biden’s expansive social spending bill, they knew a particular member of their caucus could not be counted on: Congressman Jared Golden of Maine.
Ahead of the vote, Golden informed congressional leadership that he would not be voting for the reconciliation package. “We always expected him to be a no, and he’s confirmed to the whip operation that’s where he will be,” a Democratic source familiar with the discussions between Golden and congressional leadership told The New Republic on Thursday.
Golden’s objection to the House version of the Build Back Better reconciliation package was that it lifted the state and local tax deduction. The irony of this is that the cap was raised after moderates from high-tax states like New Jersey lobbied for that. Golden’s objection also contrasted with his objection to the American Rescue Plan, earlier this year, when he cited concerns about “borrowing and spending.” Essentially, he opposed the ARP from a conservative angle and he opposed the Build Back Better package from a liberal angle. The only commonality was that he was a no on both votes.
Elected to Congress in 2018, Golden, a Marine who worked as a staffer for Senator Susan Collins on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, represents Maine’s 2nd congressional district—the northern, noncoastal (read: less urban and more conservative) part of the state. Because of redistricting, the district has recently become slightly more Democratic but only slightly. Golden, in other words, is one of those members of Congress to whom Democrats try to apply a little forgiveness because he’s in a tough district to be a Democrat.
But Golden has also made a habit of straying from the Democratic caucus on key votes. Earlier this year, he was the only Democrat to vote against the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief package. In January 2020, Golden was the only member of Congress to split his vote on impeaching Donald Trump. He has also split with Democrats on gun control bills and has switched from supporting Medicare for All to opposing it. But he also has voted in support of strengthening union rights and for a $15 minimum wage. And he did vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill earlier this month. The League of Conservation Voters also gives him a near-perfect score on its national environmental scorecard.
In Maine, Golden has cultivated an identity as a loner within the Democratic Party. He’s viewed as having his own legislating compass and representing his district, conservative as it is. “I think he’s the type of person that he does what he thinks is right, and he does what he thinks [is right] for his district, and if that doesn’t match up with the party, then he’s OK with it. It certainly isn’t an act,” Adam Cote, a Maine attorney and former Democratic candidate for governor, said. “It is in line with his district’s view, which, recall, it voted pretty heavily for Trump.”
Maine Democrats like Cote give Golden a break similar to the one Democrats across the country give Manchin (when they do): because of the sense that only Golden could hang on to this seat. In 2018, Golden beat incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin narrowly, with about 50 percent of the vote to Poliquin’s 49 percent. He did so because Maine introduced ranked-choice voting that year, which helped him win. In 2020, Golden beat Republican Dale Crafts more comfortably, 53 percent to 47 percent. Golden won reelection in a year when Trump won the district with 52 percent of the vote. Politico described Golden’s seat as the “Trumpiest” one in the country held by a Democrat.
Even with favorable redistricting changes to the district (essentially Golden’s district now includes Augusta, bringing a slightly more Democratic group of voters with it ), Golden’s elections will always be close. Poliquin is running again in 2022, and every hard-fought Democratic congressional seat will be in danger, in a midterm when Republicans are expected to make dramatic gains. Golden is one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline Program members—essentially the group of lawmakers whose races need extra attention and support because of how easily Republicans could win them.
“That seat has always been tough,” Toby McGrath, a former campaign manager to Senator Angus King, said. “Growing up in that area is important. Who he is as a veteran, signing up after 9/11 and becoming a Marine, and [he] went to college after. He was like a 27-year-old veteran at Bates College. That’s not usual.” McGrath said he believed only someone like Golden could keep the seat.
John Lapp, a Democratic media strategist who helped run the independent expenditure group that backed Golden, argued that for Democrats to hold the district, they would have to have someone like Golden. “Inland Maine is hard-core blue-collar, and Trump won that district, and if you are a mainline Democrat who just kind of goes the party line, that is not how you’re going to win this,” Lapp said. “This is a guy who’s been in the military, he’s been in the state legislature, he has tattoos on his arms.”
Another Maine Democratic strategist stressed to me how hard it is for a Democrat to retain the 2nd congressional district.
“For a Dem to win in CD2, they have to be more ideologically blue-dog in style,” the strategist said. “Progressive voters and activists, meanwhile, seem all too willing to jump down his throat, forgetting that we have a scant three-seat margin and can’t make policy without the majority. The fact is that we need Jared—and moderates like him—to get reelected, and we shouldn’t expect any of them to be [Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] or [Congresswoman] Chellie Pingree,” who represents Maine’s coastal 1st district.
Critics will ask what’s the point of having a hard-fought congressional seat if the person holding that seat doesn’t at least take the hit on the big-ticket hard votes. There’s the example of Tom Perriello, the former Virginia congressman elected from a mostly rural district in 2006. He voted for Obamacare in 2010, knowing it could well doom him. It was a gutsy vote—but it did, in fact, help doom him, and the seat has been Republican ever since. If Golden holds on and the Democrats somehow keep their majority, then at least he’s a warm body on the way to a count of 218. Pelosi, or her successor, will have to settle for that.