Everybody says they hate big money in politics. Congress has historically low approval ratings, and most people tell pollsters that they would like to start over with new senators and representatives.
But what happens on Election Day?
Incumbents get re-elected nine times out of 10, and the candidate who spends the most almost always wins.
Democrat Shenna Bellows is making a spirited attempt to find out if people really mean what they tell the pollsters, engaging in a grassroots campaign against Sen. Susan Collins, who is looking for a fourth term in office.
Bellows, the former executive director of the ACLU of Maine, will definitely be outgunned this November. Collins has a $5 million war chest and a 61 percent approval rating – and that’s just among Democrats. When Republicans and unenrolled voters are factored in, Collins has better than 70 percent approval, making her one of the most popular and safest incumbents in Washington.
But Bellows is trying to use Collins’ strength against her by running a campaign that ties Collins to a dysfunctional Congress, controlled by corporate interests that fund campaigns and reap the benefits in favorable laws.
“We are caught in a conflict between working people and large corporations. The question of this election is: Which side are you on?” Bellows said. “We are definitely on the side of working people.”
Bellows was a leader in the successful referendum campaigns that restored Election Day voter registration and legalized same-sex marriage, and she believes in the power of talking to voters face to face.
Starting this weekend, Bellows plans to take her message on the road in a 350-mile walk from Houlton to Kittery, visiting 63 communities in 24 days. On the walk, Bellows plans to talk about health care, the minimum wage and other policy matters in which Washington seems to have forgotten about working-class voters.
Collins is a member of a Republican caucus in the Senate that shut down the federal government and has been able to block extensions of unemployment benefits and increases in the minimum wage while protecting the wealthiest from most tax increases.
Despite strong support from Maine women of all parties, Collins has taken positions that many women would oppose, including the 2012 Blunt Amendment, which would have given all employers the right to assert a religious objection to providing coverage for contraceptives to their employees.
Bellows’ biggest challenge may be getting people to notice that there even is a race for the U.S. Senate this year. According to a recent Portland Press Herald poll, 64 percent of Mainers don’t know Bellows well enough to have a positive or negative opinion of her – and that includes more than half the members of her own party. The same poll shows that if the election were held now, Collins would win with 71 percent of the vote, including 45 percent of Democrats.
But Bellows says her support will grow as people get to know who she is, which is why she is making “The Walk.”
It’s a media event, but one with a long history in Maine. It was first done by Republican William Cohen in his 1972 race against an incumbent congressman. Cohen made news by walking from town to town, making the case that he was in touch with the people who lived there, unlike his opponent in Washington.
It worked for Cohen, who used it again when he knocked off incumbent Democratic Sen. William Hathaway in 1978, and Cohen periodically repeated the walk while in office.
Whether it’s the right strategy against Collins remains to be seen.
In addition to meeting working-class Mainers who feel forgotten by Washington, Bellows is likely to run into people who have gone to Collins’ office for help over the last 18 years and gotten it. She is also likely to meet people who don’t blame Collins for the gridlock in Washington. Collins is hard to cast as an out-of-touch Washington fixture because she is back in Maine whenever the Senate is not in session. Changing minds after all this time is the longest of long shots.
If Collins were perceived as vulnerable, her challenger would probably be a Democrat who is better known and better financed than Bellows.
But if Mainers are telling the truth about how they feel about big money in politics and dysfunction in Washington, Collins’ perceived strength could work against her.
It’s a long walk, but Bellows is starting now.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: