Politics

These House districts in Maine and Nebraska could hold the key to who wins the White House

Key Points
  • Maine and Nebraska are the only states that don't play by the winner-take-all rules under the Electoral College.
  • They could make a decisive difference in the presidential election if the race is tight.
  • In both states, a key district could split the state's electoral votes, giving some to President Donald Trump and some to former Vice President Joe Biden.
In this photo illustration the US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden are seen during the final presidential debate displayed on a screen of a smartphone.
Pavlo Conchar | LightRocket | Getty Images

Maine and Nebraska are the only states that don't play by the winner-take-all rules under the Electoral College, and they could make a decisive difference in the presidential election if the race is tight.

Traditionally, the winner of a state's popular vote in the race for the White House wins all of the electoral votes it has to offer. But Maine and Nebraska have both adopted laws that distribute their electoral votes in part by the statewide popular vote winner and in part by who gets more votes in each of their congressional districts.

In both states, a key district could split the state's electoral votes in the presidential election, giving some to President Donald Trump and some to former Vice President Joe Biden.

The congressional district method, which in both states allocates two votes to the overall popular vote winner and one vote to the winner of each congressional district, was first implemented in Maine in 1972. Nebraska didn't use the method until the 1996 election.

Maine, with four electoral votes up for grabs, is expected to vote for Biden overall. But its Second District, which is more rural and more conservative than the rest of the state, could award its vote to Trump, as it did in 2016.

Nebraska has five electoral votes, and at least four of them are almost certainly going to the Republican incumbent.

The one exception could be its Second District, which covers the city of Omaha and swaths of suburban voters who tend to lean more toward Biden.

Political analysts aren't widely expecting that the outcome of the 2020 election could hinge on one or two electoral votes — but there are dozens of ways it could happen, depending on how the election map unfolds.

"There are some very real possibilities where NE-2 and the ME-2 district could impact the race for president," University of Virginia Center for Politics analyst Kyle Kondik told the Omaha World-Herald earlier this month.

Even if it doesn't, Biden or Trump could have "coattails" that extend down the ballot and impact the House races in either state's Second District.

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While Democrats are looking to extend their majority in the House of Representatives, Republicans, including the president, are hoping to turn the lower chamber red once again.

"I think we're going to win the House," Trump said during his final debate with Biden last week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called that comment "delusional" and recently said she's already looking ahead to growing her coalition in 2022. Indeed, forecasters widely expect Democrats to hold on to the House.

The Nebraska fight

In an effort to shore up support in the purple pocket of the otherwise overwhelmingly red state, Trump is scheduled to travel to Omaha on Tuesday, one week out from Election Day, to host a campaign rally.

The rally could provide a boost for Republican Rep. Don Bacon, who is seeking a third term in the Cornhusker State's Second District. In the 2016 election, Trump received a slightly larger share of the vote in the district than Bacon did.

But recent polls show Biden leading Trump in that area, albeit by a slightly narrower margin than the Democratic nominee enjoys nationally. That might pay dividends for Kara Eastman, Bacon's Democratic challenger, whose competitive campaign is also being backed by spending from progressive groups.

But Eastman faces an uphill battle. Bacon had already defeated her in the 2018 race, when he slightly increased his margin of victory from 2016. Earlier this month, Bacon received a crucial endorsement from Brad Ashford, his former Democratic competitor who had served one term in Congress.

While Eastman has slightly outraised Bacon, she has also burned through much more of her war chest and is headed into the final days of the campaign with significantly less cash on hand, according to data from OpenSecrets.

A potential split in Maine

The Second Districts in Maine and Nebraska are both considered swing districts, but the playing field looks starkly different in the Pine Tree State.

Maine's Second District, which covers the vast majority of the state's land area, flipped blue in 2018 when it elected Democrat Jared Golden as its representative.

That expensive and heated race against GOP incumbent Bruce Poliquin was part of the Democratic "blue wave" in the House. But the district had already changed colors numerous times in recent years: It went for Trump in 2016 following more than two decades of supporting Democratic presidential candidates, and voted in Poliquin after being represented by Democrat Mike Michaud for more than a decade.

Polls show Biden and Trump neck-and-neck in the district. Trump, who has crisscrossed the country at a breakneck pace in the final weeks of the campaign, visited an apple orchard in Levant, near Bangor, on Sunday.

Biden, whose campaign has been more cautious about travel and hosting in-person events amid the coronavirus pandemic, has not recently paid a visit to the state. But his wife, Jill Biden, made a trip there in late September.

It's possible that the Second District could vote for Trump at the top of the ticket while continuing to support its Democratic incumbent. Polls show Golden holding a massive lead over his challenger, first-time congressional candidate Dale Crafts, with less than 10 days to go.

Crafts, a businessman and former state representative who became a paraplegic after a motorcycle accident nearly four decades ago, has raised much less money than Golden has. The Democrat has positioned himself as more moderate than some of the leaders of his party, including Pelosi, with whom he has broken ranks on numerous issues.

But Crafts maintains that the people in his district are concerned about the direction the Democratic Party aims to take the country, and he says that the polls don't reflect the enthusiasm he sees on the ground.

"I think people are seeing that we're going in a direction that's different than the Second District of Maine," Crafts told CNBC in a phone interview Thursday. Golden's campaign did not respond to an interview request.

"This is absolutely Trump country," he said. "He is so popular in the Second District, it's amazing."

Crafts also accused Golden of being more in tow with progressives in his party than he lets on.

"Jared has done a very good job of portraying himself to be this moderate," Crafts said. "When people hear what I stand for, they move from Jared to me. And I tell you right now, people are going to say 'wow' when they wake up Nov. 4."