One is a frazzle-haired socialist from Vermont. The other is an expensive suit-wearing former Wall Street executive from Maine. There is very little Bernie Sanders and Bruce Poliquin agree on. But the two share something in common as the 2020 election cycle begins.
When Sanders bowed out of the Democratic presidential primary in 2016, there was a sense from many of his supporters that he’d been cheated out of his party’s nomination. The Clinton campaign had signed a joint fundraising agreement with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) that effectively gave control of the party apparatus to Clinton during the primary. This, combined with dissatisfaction over Democrats’ “superdelegate” system, created a significant rift within the Democratic base that may have impacted the final result of the general election. Surveys show that the number of Sanders primary supporters who switched sides and voted for Trump far exceeds Trump’s margins of victory in several pivotal states, specifically Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Sanders, as he enters the 2020 presidential primary, is positioned as the candidate-done-wrong. If the system had not been rigged against him, this storyline goes, Bernie Sanders would be president.
Bruce Poliquin has a similar tale to tell. In 2018, Poliquin lost an extremely close re-election campaign to Jared Golden, thanks in part to Maine’s controversial ranked-choice voting (RCV) system. Poliquin managed to garner more first-round votes than Golden in the initial tabulation. His vote total didn’t exceed RCV’s 50% threshold, however, and this triggered a runoff round that put Golden over the top. Poliquin fought the results in court, but his efforts fell short, and Jared Golden is now our Second District Congressman.
Poliquin, like Sanders, may not be letting his loss stifle his ambition. The former congressman has been crisscrossing the state attending GOP county meetings and dinners to keep himself in the spotlight. And leadership within the state Republican Party has encouraged him to run again.
But here’s the problem for both Sanders and Poliquin: it’s hard to erase the stigma of losing, and it’s even harder when you’re viewed as a sore loser.
Poliquin’s clumsy public actions after Election Day may have done permanent damage to his political career. Whether you like ranked-choice voting or not, no one denies that it was the law of the land when he decided to run for re-election. Nevertheless, Poliquin put on a public show to gain sympathy for his position, proclaiming the system to be confusing and acting as if he had been cheated. But when the smoke of his histrionics cleared, what the public was left with was the court-supported understanding that Poliquin lost, as well as a pretty significant case of Poliquin-fatigue.
Poliquin-fatigue wasn’t a one-election phenomenon, either. Maine voters watched him run unsuccessfully for Governor and U.S. Senate prior to his ultimate election in 2014. And the entire arc of his political career has been surrounded by court cases and controversy, from his questionable use of the Tree Growth Tax Credit on his multimillion dollar oceanfront home to questions about his residency in the district he was running for.
Sanders has also seemingly worn out his welcome through controversy, by at least theoretically contributing to the election of Donald Trump. I would guess most Democratic voters are less concerned about the potential injustice at the DNC than they are in ensuring their eventual 2020 nominee has a clear path to victory. Sob stories don’t win votes, and it’s likely many who appreciate Sanders ideologically will steer clear of him for fear of a repeat performance.
Anything can happen in politics, and certainly both Sanders and Poliquin could ultimately be successful in future efforts. But the headwind they face after showing themselves to be less than graceful in defeat may far outweigh the advantage of their experience in the arena.
Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He was campaign manager for independent Marty Grohman’s campaign for Congress.