A pair of military veterans representing swing districts in Congress have more than just their own reelection campaigns to think about in the final 45 days before ballots are counted.
And, as the map unfolds this fall, it’s not implausible to see the entire presidential campaign coming down to their respective districts.
“Yeah, this could be the tie-breaking vote,” Bacon said in an interview outside the Capitol this week.
Bacon, 57, who served as a brigadier general in the Air Force, already knows the contours of the national map and how Trump is struggling to repeat his 2016 upset wins in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Give their combined 36 electoral votes to Biden, and Trump is sitting on exactly 270 votes if he holds every other state he won in 2016.
That would leave Trump’s hopes hanging on repeating victories in Bacon’s district in and around Omaha and Golden’s expansive rural district in northern Maine.
Public and private polling has shown the president in trouble in both places, setting up the possibility that they could tip the balance of power for the next four years — or set off a wild scenario in which the very unpopular Congress would determine the next president and vice president.
In this Michigan-Pennsylvania scenario, Trump and Biden could end up tied with 269 electoral votes each if the Democrat picks off one of these two House districts — sending the presidential decision to a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives. Each state casts a single vote according to how the House members of its delegation vote for president, with the winner needing at least 26 state votes to claim the presidency.
It seems a long shot, but in this era, candidates are leaving nothing to chance, especially as fewer voters split their tickets.
Consider the House races in 2016: Bacon eked out a win in his first congressional bid by just 3,500 votes, as Trump won there by fewer than 6,500 votes, and in Maine, Trump won the northern district by more than 10 percentage points, almost the same margin by which Republican Bruce Poliquin won that House race.
That makes Bacon and Golden’s campaigns all the more important, with the possibility of running up victories that would create that rare updraft to help the top of the ticket.
“Surely, I think it helps inspire our base,” Bacon said, explaining how he pushes his supporters. “They need to get out there and work hard.”
Bacon, who is in a rematch with liberal Democrat Kara Eastman after winning narrowly in 2018, offered an honest assessment of Trump’s current standing: He’s trailing, but not quite as much as he was a few months ago.
Which is illustrative of Trump’s national struggles, because he won this Nebraska district without even trying four years ago. “His campaign didn’t invest anything in the district. This time he is investing. He’s got an office, they’re doing grass-roots campaigning,” Bacon said.
In Maine, a new poll showed Trump losing the Golden district, 47 percent to 45 percent. And, according to the New York Times/Siena poll, Golden was leading his opponent, Republican Dale Crafts, by a whopping 19 percentage points. Crafts, a former state representative, entered the general election campaign almost broke as Golden, 38, a retired Marine who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, had more than $2.1 million in his account.
On Friday, the Cook Political Report moved that race from toss-up to lean Democratic, a decision made before that poll showed Golden, who narrowly beat Poliquin in 2018, pulling away.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, the GOP-friendly super PAC for House races, has nearly $900,000 reserved in advertising for the final five weeks of the campaign, and Crafts has no ads reserved, according to Democratic estimates. The CLF may have to rethink its financial decision and redirect those resources to other races if the race gets too far out of hand.
The bigger Golden’s lead becomes, the more he might help Biden get over the top and win that electoral vote. The state’s other three electoral votes are all but certain to go in the Democratic column.
Local reports show that Trump has made his own ad buy in Bangor, the largest city in the northern district.
In the Omaha market, it’s the opposite climate — overall the district is more suburban, a better fit for Biden and Eastman, but Bacon is a beloved GOP incumbent who is very much in this race, with the full financial backing of Republican groups.
Under current ad reservations, Bacon and his allies would spend more than $3.5 million on advertising, compared with $2.1 million for Eastman and her allies. Both presidential campaigns are advertising there, and Trump has sent several family members to the Omaha area as surrogates for his campaign.
In the previous five races for this House seat, the average margin of victory was two percentage points, according Bacon. “So I don’t need to have all these scenarios out there to know that I’m in a tough race,” he said.
If Golden helps Biden to victory in his race, Bacon would need to boost Trump to victory there to give the president a chance if he also loses Michigan and Pennsylvania without gaining ground anywhere else.
That scenario, a 269-269 tie, would create a level of chaos not seen since the 19th century, the last time no candidate reached a majority of electoral votes.
The current Congress has 26 House delegations with a majority of Republicans, 23 favoring Democrats, and Pennsylvania’s delegation is evenly split. But it’s the next House that would vote for the president, in early January, and several more states could see Democrats claiming the edge in their delegations.
All this speculation is likely just that — Biden could break through in large states like Florida, Wisconsin and Arizona to win decisively, or Trump could replicate his 2016 map for a clear reelection victory.
But as Bacon tells his supporters, take nothing for granted anymore; their votes for his campaign and the president’s could make history.
How likely is that?
“I don’t think it’s high, but it’s there,” he said. “I think it inspires us to work hard. Our team, on November 3, we should have nothing left on the table.”