AUGUSTA — Democrats Janet Mills and Adam Cote clashed briefly over guns and the National Rifle Association on Tuesday night during the final debate among the seven candidates hoping to win their party’s gubernatorial nomination next week.

The tone of Tuesday’s debate, hosted by WMTW-TV and WABI-TV, was largely congenial as the candidates – Mills, Cote, Betsy Sweet, Mark Eves, Mark Dion, Diane Russell and Donna Dion – demonstrated their broad agreement on major issues.

All seven endorsed the concept of universal health care, supported ranked-choice voting, called for more investment in education and broadband internet, and pledged to bring a more civil tone to Augusta after nearly eight years of brash-talking Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

The solitary flashpoint of the night came when Mills – the state’s attorney general and the perceived front-runner in the crowded Democratic field – was asked if she would accept support from the NRA.

Mills replied “no,” said she was proud of her work on gun safety and reiterated her support for banning so-called “bump stock” additions to firearms as well as large-capacity ammunition magazines. Mills also pointed out that she recently received an “F” grade from the NRA – as did all six other Democrats in the race – and recounted how a former romantic partner once held a loaded gun to her head while in a drunken rage. Mills said she packed her bags and left – adding “I was one of the lucky ones” – but said the experience inspired her work to co-found the Maine Women’s Lobby and work on gun safety issues.

Turning to Cote, Mills fired back on television ads in which Cote said “Janet hasn’t led on gun safety” and highlighted past endorsements Mills received from the NRA during her legislative career representing Farmington a decade ago.

“You can spend another million dollars on attack ads attacking me, but don’t ever say I don’t care about gun safety,” Mills said sternly. “As your governor, I will do everything in my power to make Maine people safe, just as I always have.”



When it was his turn to answer the NRA question, Cote pointed to his experience training other soldiers in firearms as a 20-year veteran of the Maine Army National Guard. Cote said he highlighted the NRA’s three endorsements of her – in 2004, 2006 and 2008 – because they were for votes against background checks and other gun-related bills.

“These are public records,” said Cote, an attorney from Sanford. “I understand political theater as much as everybody but the reality is you had a vote. You had several votes on this and that’s the reason why you got the A-rating. It wasn’t for conservation issues, it wasn’t for anything else.”

All of the other candidates also pledged to work on gun safety issues, if elected. Portland Sen. Mark Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff and Portland police officer, pointed to his work to pass Maine’s first universal background check bill, which was ultimately vetoed by LePage, as well as his “red flag” bill to allow police to confiscate guns from people deemed to pose a clear threat to themselves or others.

“My message to Maine voters is this: As governor I respect the rights of individuals to be who they are in relationship to their firearms as long as they follow the law,” Dion said.

Eves, a former Maine House speaker, blamed the NRA for Maine not having universal background checks. The NRA as well as local sportsmen successfully defeated a ballot initiative in 2016 to require background checks on private gun sales and transfers.

“We need to make sure we have universal background checks, ban assault rifles, bump stocks and high-capacity magazines,” Eves said. “We are not going to do that unless we draw a hard line with the NRA and not have them at the table.”

Maine’s first use of ranked-choice voting is expected to play a major role in who ultimately wins the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. While many perceive Mills and Cote – two of the more moderate candidates – to be leading the field, progressives such as Eves and Sweet are pushing hard for votes on the more liberal side of the party.

Unlike in the Republican gubernatorial field, where the four candidates as well as their party oppose ranked-choice voting, all seven Democrats support the tabulation process and pledged to rank their choices in the ballot box.

Tuesday night’s debate was held at the University of Maine at Augusta. A Republican gubernatorial debate will be held at 8 p.m. Thursday, also at UMA and also televised by the two stations.