BOSTON (CN) — Maine’s Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon won the state’s primary election Tuesday and will run against four-term U.S. Senator Susan Collins in a pivotal race that could decide whether the Democrats regain a majority in the chamber.
With 15% of the precincts counted, Gideon, a centrist, had 70.1% of the vote.
Betsy Sweet, a left-wing activist and spiritual healer who was endorsed by the progressive group Justice Democrats, had 21.8%. A third candidate, self-described queer artist and public-interest attorney Bre Kidman, had 8%.
Turnout was “incredible” in South Portland, the state’s fourth-largest city, city clerk Emily Scully told Courthouse News.
“Four years ago, in a similar primary, we had 1,300 votes total,” Scully said. “This year we’ve had 4,700 people voting just by absentee ballot.”
Gideon was leading in every city and town to report results so far except for tiny Brighton, Maine, where Sweet was ahead by a single vote.
In South Portland, Gideon had 71% of the vote. In Biddeford, the state’s sixth-largest city, Gideon had 67%.
Gideon had been widely expected to win the primary easily and face off against Collins, one of the Senate’s most endangered Republicans, who ran unopposed in her party’s primary. Republicans hold a 53–47 advantage in the Senate and Democrats believe Maine is one of their best chances to pick up a seat.
Because of the national implications of the Maine race, the state has been awash in campaign money. Gideon has raised $24 million and has $5.5 million on hand, according to Federal Election Commission filings, and has also been the beneficiary of heavy spending by political action committees.
Collins has also collected significant sums but has been outraised by Gideon, indicating the intense Democratic focus on the race.
Although many candidates around the country have been pursuing a “turn out the base” strategy, Collins and Gideon are both moderates who are appealing to the center in a state that has the country’s oldest population.
“People are such ticket-splitters in Maine,” said James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Farmington, in an interview with Courthouse News.
Gideon has refused to endorse Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, while Collins didn’t vote for President Donald Trump in 2016 and has refused to say if she’ll vote for him this year.
A poll conducted June 20–24 by Moore Information, a Republican polling group, showed Collins up by 45% to 37%. But a poll taken July 2–3 by a Democratic firm, Public Policy Polling, showed Gideon ahead by 46% to 42%.
Real Clear Politics rates the race a toss-up.
The primary also represented a key test of balloting during a pandemic. In the capital, Augusta, only one polling place was open in the entire city, in the Civic Center.
Bangor, a city of 33,000, opened only one polling place and allowed only 20 people inside the building at a time.
Municipalities have been encouraging people to vote by absentee ballot, but in Portland that produced “total chaos” at the city clerk’s office as employees tried to process some 17,000 mail-in ballots, according to one official there.
“It’s crazy. There are no words,” the city clerk, Katherine Jones, told Courthouse News.
Statewide there were almost 180,000 requests for absentee ballots as of last week, according to the state elections office, compared to fewer than 12,000 four years ago.
Collins became a national lightning rod for Democratic antagonism after she provided a highly publicized key vote to put Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court in October 2018.
That vote “lit a fire under Democrats who felt betrayed,” said Melcher, although it also shored up Collins’ base. Previously she had faced a possible primary threat from conservative former Governor Paul LePage, but after the Kavanaugh vote LePage not only decided not to run but also put heavy pressure on another primary opponent, Derek Levasseur, to drop out of the race.
Because both Collins and Gideon are centrists and are avoiding hot-button issues, Gideon has been trying to portray Collins as someone who has lately become more concerned with pleasing the Republican establishment in Washington rather than representing Maine’s unique interests.
Collins has portrayed Gideon as untested and risky. Some of her ads have attacked Gideon for waiting too long to condemn a Democratic legislator who was accused of sexual misconduct with a student.
Gideon has recently begun running ads defending herself against the charge, so “apparently it’s working,” Melcher said.
Gideon’s father is from India and her mother is second-generation Armenian, but she hasn’t promoted her diverse ethnic background in the campaign.
A bigger issue, said Melcher, is that Gideon wasn’t born in Maine and grew up in Rhode Island. “In Maine, that’s a big deal,” said Melcher; it’s significant if candidates have “real Maine roots” as opposed to hailing from another part of New England.
Collins was born and raised in Caribou, Maine, which bills itself as “America’s most northeastern city.” Her family runs a lumber business there that it started in 1844.
Maine has been trending Democratic in terms of party enrollment. Democrats have added 40,000 new voters since 2016, compared with fewer than 6,000 new Republicans. Statewide, Democrats account for about 36% of the state’s roughly 1 million voters; some 32.5% are independents and 27.5% are Republicans. About 4% belong to the Green Party.
Some of Maine’s 571 precincts are extremely rural. In Macwahoc, with 100% of the town’s vote in, Gideon won all three votes. In the town of Crawford, Gideon won both of them.