President Donald Trump will make an official White House visit to a medical manufacturing plant in Guilford on Friday, his first trip to Maine since taking office and a seismic event for a town of 1,500 in the state’s least populous and most conservative county.
The president’s trip to Puritan Medical Products, one of the world’s top makers of the medical swabs used in coronavirus testing, comes amid nationwide unrest over police brutality and a global pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 people in the United States.
For Trump, who made five visits to Maine during the 2016 campaign, the visit also offers a window into the kind of politics that made him successful that year — his disdain for foreign trade, his promotion of American manufacturing and his electoral success in more rural, historically Democratic areas, most of which he will need to hold onto this year if he hopes to stay in office.
Trump won Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and its single electoral vote by 10 points in 2016, with his promises to bring back manufacturing jobs back resonating in a region that had seen more than two decades of mill closures.
But the district, one of 21 that flipped from favoring former President Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, is expected to be another battleground this year. Trump’s victory was the first time since 1988 that any of Maine’s electoral votes had gone to a Republican. But now-U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, narrowly beat an incumbent Republican in 2018, the first time a challenger of either party had won the congressional seat in more than a century.
The Guilford visit is the president’s fourth to a factory producing supplies to help fight the coronavirus, following recent trips to Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona — three states that Trump won in 2016 but are considered competitive in 2020.
His arrival has not been greeted warmly by Maine’s highest-profile politicians, with Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, saying she was worried the president’s visit would create unrest. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican who denounced Trump in 2016 and has yet to indicate whether she will support him this year, will be working in Washington rather than joining him in Guilford on Friday, according to her staff.
But Trump’s visit has been met with more enthusiasm by some local politicians on the ground.
“Those workers have worked overtime, they’ve worked weekends, they’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty,” former state Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, a Trump supporter whose district included Guilford, said of Puritan’s workforce. “And he’s coming to say ‘thank you’ to those workers.”
Piscataquis County, with a population of around 17,000, makes for relatively friendly territory for Trump. It is the only Maine county to have voted Republican in each of the last three presidential elections.
Former Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat who also represented the 2nd District in Congress from 1995 to 2003, said Trump was likely trying to “shore up his support” with the Guilford visit.
“He still has a base, a strong base, but I think it’s eroded,” Baldacci said, citing the president’s conduct in office and the recent economic downturn as reasons that his support might not be as strong as it was in 2016. An April poll from the firm Critical Insights put Trump’s statewide approval rating in Maine at 36 percent, down slightly from earlier in his term.
Manufacturing employment — the core of Trump’s message in many swing counties — ticked up slightly in Maine during the first three years of his presidency. But it fell dramatically as the pandemic hit, dropping 17 percent from the start of the year, with just 44,000 jobs in April, the lowest number on record.
That makes Puritan Medical Products an economic bright spot amid record levels of unemployment statewide. The company, which was among those compelled to increase production under the Defense Production Act, has added workers in Guilford since the outbreak began and is building an additional facility in Pittsfield, set to open in July.
Peter Navarro, a Trump trade adviser and the administration’s policy coordinator for the Defense Production Act, called the Pittsfield jobs a “nice bonus” for Maine in a statement released to CNN in April.
The strong economy was at the center of Trump’s re-election campaign messaging until just a few months ago, when the coronavirus-induced economic shock undid years of gains in the stock market and sent unemployment skyrocketing to levels not seen since the Great Depression.
Garrett Murch, a former communications director for the Maine Republican Party and owner of the firm GCM Strategies, said he thought the presidential race in the 2nd District would “certainly be closer” this year compared to 2016.
“We’re certainly going to have a damaged economy on Election Day,” Munch said. “I don’t know if people are going to blame that on the president or not.”
Thomas, the former state senator, thinks Trump will win the 2nd District again come November, saying that, despite controversies over tweets, the president has delivered on the issues that matter.
“I’m in the firewood business, and when I hire someone to cut firewood, there may be lots of things I don’t like about them,” Thomas said. “But if they do a good job making wood, I’m happy. And I think President Trump has done a good job at the things that are important to me.”