WATERVILLE –– Gusty morning winds whipped down Upper Main Street as Shenna Bellows – armed with a “Fair Contract Now!” sign – hit the first of three “core constituencies” that she says provide a path to victory in her long-shot U.S. Senate campaign.
“Any time you need me to stand with you, I will be here,” Bellows told union workers seeking a new contract who were demonstrating outside packaging manufacturer Huhtamaki.
Thirty minutes later, the Democrat talked “equal pay” and feminist social activism with women – another target group – leading a nonprofit organization committed to empowering young girls. And after lunch it was off to Colby College for a meeting with young progressives – a demographic that helped elect and then re-elect President Obama.
“When it matters most, Susan Collins votes too often with Republicans,” Bellows told the Colby students.
That’s a message Bellows is hammering at every opportunity with Maine voters – and particularly blue-collar, female and younger voters – who likely “split the ticket” in 2008 by voting for Democrat Barack Obama and Sen. Collins, a moderate Republican.
Increasingly, the 39-year-old veteran of Augusta policy battles is also casting her match-up with the popular incumbent in broader, national terms that she hopes will resonate with Democrats and centrist independents.
“If Mainers re-elect Susan Collins, there is a very good chance that Republicans will gain control of the Senate,” Bellows said during a break at a popular Waterville lunch stop. “If Mainers elect me, there is a very good chance Democrats will keep control of the Senate. And that matters on workers’ rights, women’s rights, on campaign finance reform, on the environment and on so many issues people care about.”
Bellows’ prediction about the national implications of Maine’s Senate race could be true. While the prognostications seem to change daily, political observers agree that Republicans could reclaim the U.S. Senate and are all but guaranteed to hold onto control of the House.
Bellows remains resolute in spite of the many naysayers as she logs 12- to 14-hour days campaigning and raising money.
“It is still an uphill battle, but in every poll we have chipped away at that lead,” Bellows told about 40 people gathered recently at a Falmouth “house party.” A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram poll in September showed Bellows trailing by 30 points, down from a 55-point spread three months earlier.
Small and scrappy with a smile that seems ready-made for politics, Bellows was well-respected in Maine political circles long before she decided to challenge a senator who was considered a “safe bet” for re-election.
As executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine for eight years, Bellows maintained a steady presence in the State House as she lobbied and testified on bills dealing with everything from abortion to drones. She helped lead the two referendum campaigns to legalize same-sex marriage as well as a ballot measure to restore same-day voter registration.
A Hancock County native, Bellows frequently mentions her modest upbringing as the daughter of a carpenter and a mother who worked various jobs to help the family scrape by.
“What I remember about the fifth grade is getting electricity and running water” at home, Bellows told a Falmouth crowd.
She served two years with the Peace Corps in Panama and later worked in the southern U.S. with the AmeriCorps VISTA program.
Bellows’ Senate bid quickly attracted the attention of national progressive groups and some libertarians impressed with her ACLU record. Democratic die-hards have credited the first-time political candidate for mounting a gritty challenge against a well-entrenched incumbent.
The campaign’s recent ads have accused Collins of voting against equal pay for women, opposing a minimum wage increase and attempting to “re-write history” about last fall’s government shutdown. The Collins campaign, and occasionally the senator herself, have hit back.
“I did not expect her to run a negative campaign,” Collins said in a recent interview. “Obviously I’m the incumbent and my record is fair game. But her misrepresentations are disturbing and are not in keeping with the high road in Maine campaigns.”
Bellows has raised more than $2 million – far less than her opponent but a respectable sum for a campaign that has received little fundraising help from a national Democratic Party focused elsewhere. The majority of contributions to Bellows’ campaign are small donations from Maine residents, which the Democrat points out contrasts with Collins’ reliance on non-Mainers and corporate political action committees.
But the campaign has had its share of stumbles and disappointments.
On the day Bellows spent in Waterville, first lady Michelle Obama was in Orono helping boost the campaigns of fellow Democrats Mike Michaud and Emily Cain, who are running for governor and Congress.
The Bellows campaign attributed her conspicuous absence to a “scheduling conflict.” But Maine Republicans pointed out that Planned Parenthood co-organized the event and the organization’s president, Cecile Richards, was also on stage with Obama. Just a day before, Planned Parenthood had asked Bellows to change language on her website suggesting that Collins had voted to defund the organization.
As head of the ACLU of Maine, Bellows was a fierce defender of women’s reproductive rights in Augusta. But Collins is regarded as a reliable pro-choice vote in an increasingly right-leaning Republican Party.
Collins was endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign – the nation’s largest gay rights advocacy group – despite Bellows’ leadership in the multi-year fight to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine. Collins did not publicly endorse same-sex marriage until the day of the endorsement. But as on the abortion issue, she is considered one of the gay community’s few Republican allies in Congress.
In an effort to undercut Bellows’ narrative as the best choice for blue-collar workers, Collins’ campaign frequently touts the fact that the Republican earned the endorsement of all four labor unions at Bath Iron Works, among others.
Jane Wiesenberg, co-president of Colby Democrats, summed up the frustration of the Bellows camp as it attempts to poke holes in Collins’ reputation as a middle-of-the-road dealmaker.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘I’m voting for Susan Collins because she is a moderate and we need moderate Republicans’ ” Wiesenberg told Bellows. How do you counter that perception, the Bellows supporter asked.
Bellows’ response? When it matters most, Collins too often sides with Republicans.
Jacqueline Curley, a registered Democrat from Falmouth, is the type of voter Bellows is trying to reach. Curley said she voted for Collins during her first few elections but has since grown disillusioned.
“I never minded Susan Collins but I never loved Susan Collins,” Curley said. “I just never felt complete trust in her because I watch how she votes and how she votes doesn’t necessarily reflect Maine interests. … Then Shenna came along, and she is a breath of fresh air.”
“House parties” have become a mainstay of the Bellows campaign as the race enters the final month, reflecting the Democrat’s dire need for campaign cash to compete with pro-Collins commercials on the TV airwaves.
At the Falmouth event, supporters and would-be donors nibbled on shrimp, cheese and other appetizers in a room framed by original artwork of Maine landscapes and an elegant, natural-wood Steinway baby grand piano.
The candidate hit the themes of her campaign: the need to protect Social Security, fend off attacks on reproductive rights, reform student loan policies to reduce crippling debt loads, and raise the minimum wage. And she repeated her contention that Collins sides too often with her conservative Republican colleagues for moderate Maine.
She then asked each person in the crowd to talk with five friends or family members who voted for both Obama and Collins in 2008, adding that “the stakes in this race are very high.”
“Take a look at the national polling,” Bellows said. “It could come down to Maine.”
Correction: This story was updated at 11:45 a.m. Sunday Oct. 12 to correct that Planned Parenthood has not endorsed Susan Collins.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: