BOSTON (CN) — As the Democratic Party fights for control of the U.S. Senate in November, Tuesday’s Maine primary could give some valuable clues on what to expect.
One of the most endangered Republicans in the Senate, Susan Collins, is running for a fifth term. The primary will be a key test of strength for her and for her likely Democratic opponent, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon.
If Gideon can flip the seat in the fall, it will be much easier for the Democrats to gain a majority in the chamber where Republicans currently have a 53-47 advantage.
As a result of the pivotal race, an enormous amount of money has flooded into this small state that has the country’s oldest population.
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. Much of the money has come from out of state, making the race reminiscent of Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 challenge to Senator Ted Cruz in Texas.
Collins has also collected significant sums but is being outraised by Gideon, indicating the intense Democratic focus on the race.
According to the Collins campaign, as of June 9 outside groups had spent $11.9 million on TV and radio ads against Collins, compared with $6.7 million in her favor.
Gideon, a centrist, is heavily favored in Tuesday’s primary contest against two left-wing challengers. But the results will show how well she has consolidated her support in the state and how much work she has left to do to excite the party’s progressive wing.
It will be telling how much attention she gives to the challengers in any victory speech, Ronald Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine, said in an interview.
Collins, who didn’t vote for President Trump in 2016 and has refused to say if she’ll vote for him this year, has her own issues with the right flank of her party.
Collins is running unopposed, but turnout might indicate the level of enthusiasm she is generating — although Republican primary turnout is expected to be influenced by the fact that there is a heated race in the second congressional district which includes nearly 80% of the state geographically.
Turnout could also be skewed by the pandemic and the fact that the primary was rescheduled from June 9, said Schmidt.
More telling might be the number of Republican voters who leave their ballot blank rather than voting for Collins. In 2014, when Collins also ran unopposed in a primary, 13% of voters left her box blank.
On the Democratic side, Gideon is facing off against Betsy Sweet, a political activist and spiritual healer who finished third in a seven-way primary for governor in 2018. Sweet supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal and has been endorsed by the progressive group Justice Democrats. She has raised $646,000 and has $44,000 on hand.
Also in the race is Bre Kidman, a self-described queer artist and public-interest attorney whose website states: “I’m a pierced, tattooed, rainbow-haired plus-sized burlesque performer who buys most of their fast-fashion wardrobe on clearance. I put the Q+ in LGBTQ+. I live in an 830-square-foot house recently described as ‘probably not intended for year-round occupancy.’”
Kidman, who has raised $24,000 and has $4,000 on hand, supports public funding of elections.
Gideon has been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Emily’s List, NARAL and the Maine AFL-CIO. An indication of her confidence is the fact that she skipped one of the primary debates.
Pollsters haven’t spent much time surveying the primary on the assumption that Gideon will cruise to victory, and have instead conducted head-to-head polls between Gideon and Collins.
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.
Collins became a 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 James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Farmington, in an interview with Courthouse News.
But it also shored up her base, Melcher said. Previously Collins 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.
Both Collins and Gideon are campaigning as pragmatic centrists so there has been little focus on hot-button issues. Gideon’s chief challenge, said Melcher, is that Collins has been very popular in the past so she has to persuade former Collins voters to abandon her.
Gideon’s line of attack, Melcher said, is that Collins is “somebody you used to like and trust but she’s not for you anymore” — that she’s become too influenced by the health care and pharmaceutical industries, and “when the chips are down” she sides with the Republican leadership in Washington rather than representing Maine’s interests.
Collins’ ads claim that Gideon is untested and “risky,” Melcher said. One series of ads attacked Gideon for waiting too long to condemn a Democratic legislator who was accused of sexual misconduct with a student. Gideon has started running ads defending herself against the charge, so “apparently it’s working,” Melcher said.
In 2018 Gideon accused state Republicans of “terrorism” in a dispute over when to adjourn the legislative session. She later apologized.
Collins is a co-author of the Paycheck Protection Program that has made loans to businesses during the pandemic. Gideon criticized the program for directing money to special interests, although it later came out that her husband’s law firm received at least $1 million in PPP loans.
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 exotic 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.
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.
Absentee ballots will play a huge role in the race this year as a result of the pandemic. There have been 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. It’s not clear if the large number of absentee ballots will delay the reporting of the results.