In just over six months’ time, Maine Democrats will decide who should carry the party flag into one of the country’s most closely watched congressional battles: the race to unseat Republican Sen. Susan Collins.

Maine’s 2020 Senate race is shaping up to be a fiercely contested election fueled by unprecedented amounts of mostly out-of-state money if Collins, who has yet to formally declare her candidacy, decides to seek a fifth term.

Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., and party donors in Maine and nationwide are already throwing their support and more than $4 million into the primary campaign of Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport.

Yet the outcome of the June 9 congressional primary is far from guaranteed six months out. Gideon faces at least three competitors for the Democratic nomination: attorney Bre Kidman of Saco, former tech executive and political newcomer Ross LaJeunesse of Biddeford and longtime progressive advocate Betsy Sweet of Hallowell.

Each candidate says they were motivated to run by their frustration with Collins – particularly her votes to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and pass a $1.5 trillion tax bill, and by their perception that Maine’s senior senator simply isn’t standing up to a president whom many Democrats regard as corrupt and dangerous.

Within days of announcing her candidacy, Gideon landed endorsements from major national groups, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which positioned her as the front-runner and drew criticism from her rivals and their supporters. She has also easily outdistanced her competitors in fundraising.

It remains to be seen whether Gideon’s profile and fundraising edge translate into a primary victory, or whether rank-and-file Democrats find reasons to gravitate instead to Sweet, LaJeunesse or Kidman. Ranked-choice voting, which will apply in the June 9 election, also adds a degree of unpredictability.

Sara Gideon: busy mother turned House speaker

Gideon has campaigned all over the state in the last two months, making about 40 stops since the first week of October at events ranging from bean suppers and coffee hours to pie and ice cream socials, candidate forums and roundtable discussions.

In her official capacity as speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, she also attended dozens of additional functions – including presiding over a short special session of the Legislature in September.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon hugs Martha Poliquin after speaking at a Nov. 21 meeting of Androscoggin County Democrats at the city building in Auburn. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Gideon portrays herself as someone who is able to knit together bipartisan support for change in the face of strong executive opposition. One recent TV ad highlights her willingness to go toe-to-toe with former Republican Gov. Paul LePage and push through legislation to fund more treatment for Mainers with substance use disorder. The ad features an image of President Trump in the background as Gideon speaks, implying that she would be equally willing to defy him were she elected to the Senate.

At almost every campaign stop, and in her advertising, Gideon, now serving her fourth term as a state lawmaker, tells the short story of how she stepped to the plate to get involved in politics in her hometown of Freeport years ago.

A mother of three young children at the time, Gideon said friends and neighbors were trying to recruit her husband to run for the Town Council and had left a message on the couple’s answering machine.

She said, with her baby girl in her arms and her two young sons circling around her feet, her first thought was there was no way her husband was going to run for office. But then she had an epiphany of sorts and thought that would be a good job for her.

Gideon won a seat on the Town Council and eventually in the Legislature, where she was elected speaker after her third term.

Sara Gideon, center, talks with, clockwise from left, Lou MacDonald of Durham, Sue Goddard of Lewiston, Pauline Fortier of Lewiston and Lorna Healey of Litchfield after an AARP event Nov. 21 at The Pit Bar & Grill in Lewiston. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“My core belief then is still really my core belief now about public service,” Gideon said at a gathering of 30 people in Auburn last month by the Androscoggin County Democrats. “And that the idea and the belief that public service is really essentially about one thing. It’s about how you improve the lives of people around you and how you lift people up.”

As an elected official, she said she’s learned key lessons about how to work with people who have differing positions.

“If you are willing to listen and if you are willing to sit around the table, sometimes especially with the people who you think you disagree with the most, it is still really possible to get things done,” Gideon said.

She reminded the audience that Collins promised to serve just two terms in the Senate but is now in her fourth term, and during a question-and-answer period with the group, she criticized Collins for voting for a tax reform bill that gave a tax cut to corporations and billionaires.

But Gideon herself was challenged by a listener in Lewiston for voting in the Legislature to give a $15 million tax break to Bath Iron Works’ parent company, General Dynamics. Gideon said the vote was difficult, but the bill was designed to encourage the company to make investments in jobs at BIW as it competes for Navy contracts with shipyards in other states.

“Every day was an exercise in bringing people together, and every day was also an exercise in standing up to a bully,” Gideon said of her work during the LePage administration. “So if there is one thing I want to make sure you know about me, it is that I don’t back down from a fight. I know how to stand up to a bully – but maybe more importantly how to work around a bully.”

Gideon is also clearly staking out turf that Collins has also claimed, especially on abortion, where Collins lost ground with her support of Kavanaugh, who many see as a threat to the landmark Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade.

She notes that with new Democratic majorities in the Legislature and a Democratic governor, the state has taken steps to expand reproductive rights, promote renewable energy to combat climate change and prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to Mainers with pre-existing medical conditions.

“I mention all these things because I know they are the very issues that we as Democrats really care about,” Gideon said. “But I think that we as Mainers really care about them. In addition to that, I think they are the issues and the ways that Sen. Collins has been letting us down.”

Bre Kidman: activist, artist and attorney

Bre Kidman of Saco, a defense attorney who works mostly for the state taking the cases of clients who can’t afford to pay for their own lawyer, was the first candidate to enter the primary. But with no name recognition and little in the way of contributions, Kidman faces a tough challenge.

Bre Kidman, a criminal defense attorney and performance artist, is one of four Democratic candidates to join race for U.S. Senate in Maine. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Kidman, who is the only openly non-binary person to ever run for the U.S. Senate in Maine, grabbed some initial headlines for their sexual orientation. But Kidman said that’s not the only difference between them and the other candidates in the race.

“In terms of identity politics, there are other boxes that have far more significance,” said Kidman, who uses the pronouns they, them and their. “For instance, I’m a person with a huge amount of student debt.”

Kidman is trying to turn their outsider status into an asset, critiquing the political system fueled by enormous amounts of money and directed by party leaders and donors who may be out of touch with the values and concerns of everyday Democrats.

Kidman, 31, holds a law degree from the University of Maine School of Law and an undergraduate degree in English from Loyola University in Chicago.

A burlesque artist and activist, Kidman tried to visit Collins in Washington, D.C., during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and Senate vote but to no avail. Ultimately, it was Collins’ vote to confirm Kavanaugh that propelled them into the race, Kidman said.

Kidman said there have only been about 25 members of Congress in the course of U.S. history who were LGBTQ.

“That is not adequate representation,” Kidman said. “And that bothers me, but so little of our representation is adequate.”

Hanging in the race despite being unable to raise any significant campaign cash or gain the backing or endorsement of any advocacy or large political organizations, Kidman has tried to meet Democrats where they are at in recent weeks, logging more than 1,000 miles and making do with a shoestring budget.

Kidman said most people agree that elections can be bought with enough money but that most also agree that shouldn’t be the way it goes in America.

“The way you win is getting enough money and spending it wisely on advertising, and that feels wrong to me, because it doesn’t really tell me anything about how you would be as a decision maker,” Kidman said.

Earlier this year, Kidman had to fight their way onto the stage at one of the Maine Democratic Party’s largest events of the year, the annual Muskie Lobster Bake named for the late U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, an icon for Maine Democrats.

The party had selected Gideon as a guest speaker, to discuss legislative affairs, but hadn’t invited any of the other Democratic U.S. Senate hopefuls to speak. Kidman said they had to convince party leadership that any candidate who had announced needed to be given fair treatment and a chance to address the crowd. The party relented and invited both Kidman and Sweet to speak to the crowd, as the two and Gideon were the only announced candidates at the time.

Attempting to foster some early coalitions, Kidman said time and time again they were told, “This is Sara’s race.”

“That made me furious to be honest with you; that made me so frustrated,” Kidman said. “Because nobody had voted.”

Kidman said the struggle for power in the Democratic Party is real, and the fight they are girding for is really a fight about who gets to make decisions for all people, not just a few or the wealthy elite.

“It’s why I’m vehemently fighting for the primary to be as fair as possible,” Kidman said. “It’s why I’m throwing punches at the DSCC for putting their whole body on the scale and why I’m asking people to think about how they cover the race and asking people to think about why do we look at the person with the most money as the best candidate.”

Ross LaJeunesse: political outsider and tech exec coming home

Ross LaJeunesse had just concluded a 15-minute pitch to a gathering of the UMaine College Democrats when he was hit with a question likely to come up repeatedly as he courts the politically engaged party loyalists who turn out for primaries.

“A lot of the stuff you said, it seems like Sara Gideon or (Betsy) Sweet and the other candidates, a lot of it would apply to them, too,” a student bluntly responded. “So what do you bring to the table that they don’t? Why should we vote for you and not them?”

Democratic Senate candidate Ross LaJeunesse, photographed in Portland on Thursday, Dec. 5. Staff Photo by Gregory Rec

LaJeunesse is both a latecomer to a race already drawing national attention and relatively unknown in his native state – two factors that he will have to overcome soon if he hopes to be competitive in June.

“I do have business experience,” said LaJeunesse in a glossed-over reference to his years as an executive with Google. “But what I mostly bring, and what I think every candidate brings, is their own stories and their own passions. And I think that, as a party, we are not focusing enough on the issues facing Maine families.”

The “stories” LaJeunesse tells in his introductory video, to small groups and during Main Street walks focus on his parents’ struggles to run a small business in Biddeford. He also recounts feeling forced to seek a career elsewhere because he couldn’t afford to pay off his student loan debt on a Maine salary.

And he says too many Mainers “are right on the margins” financially despite working hard – often at multiple jobs – to support themselves and their families.

“What we need is a senator in Maine who has not forgotten what working families are about and the struggles that they are facing,” LaJeunesse said.

During the introductory weeks of his new campaign, LaJeunesse has often highlighted his family’s story: immigrant grandparents who worked in the Biddeford mills, the failure of his parents’ first hardware store followed by the success of their second, and the economic conditions that drive many young Mainers to build their lives elsewhere.

It is still unclear how – or if – LaJeunesse will affect the race, although his entrance created a buzz in Democratic circles. Much of that stems from the background that he spends less time talking about on the campaign trail, at least so far.

The 49-year-old was head of international relations at Google, a high-powered position that put him at the center of the tech behemoth’s massive global expansion and in the middle of issues like China’s attempts to censor internet search results. He says he left Google as the company “increasingly put profits ahead of people and principles.”

Prior to that, LaJeunesse was deputy chief of staff to former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. His well-paid position at Google means LaJeunesse is in a position to self-fund at least part of his campaign, and his tech sector and political connections in California could give him access to donors in a wealthy state where both Gideon and Collins have already raised substantial sums of money.

LaJeunesse prominently features pictures of himself and his husband, Patrick Oathout, on his campaign website and materials, and he has served on the boards of several national LGBTQ organizations.

Dressed in jeans, an untucked flannel shirt and jacket from L.L. Bean, LaJeunesse made his way around downtown Orono businesses on a recent chilly November afternoon. He introduced himself to business owners or patrons – most of whom clearly knew Collins but appeared politely unaware of his candidacy – and then spent most of his time talking about, or listening to, the financial pressure many Mainers face to pay their bills despite a supposedly solid economy.

“I know what it’s like to work hard in a small business and, like I said, I know what it’s like when it doesn’t work out,” LaJeunesse told the operator of a halal market in downtown Orono and a woman struggling to find a job at comparable pay to the one she lost. “And it’s not because you didn’t work at it. It was just the economy wasn’t right.”

At Dick’s Barber Shop, he shared stories of growing up in Maine in a French-Canadian family. And in Black Bear Brewing’s tasting room, he sipped an IPA while talking to another patron about the challenges that residents of rural Maine face getting access to emergency medical care.

Like every Democrat in the race, LaJeunesse was motivated to run by frustration with Collins. While he was angered by her pivotal vote to confirm Kavanaugh, LaJeunesse talks more about Republicans’ $1.5 trillion tax bill that he says has largely benefited the wealthy or corporations like his former employer, Google.

“It sounds so hokey to say it, but I’m going to say it: If you care about our democracy as I do, you get your butt off the bench and you do something about it,” LaJeunesse told the UMaine College Democrats. “And I’m fortunate enough that I can do this race, so I decided to do it.”

Betsy Sweet: progressive advocate with a nearly 40-year track record

Betsy Sweet says she not only has the progressive values that she insists Maine and the nation needs right now, she has a more than three-decade-long track record of fighting and winning policy battles on those issues.

The challenge Sweet faces – along with her fellow Democratic competitors – is earning enough statewide name recognition and political trust among voters to topple Collins. Sweet has chosen to highlight her career working on progressive issues, an approach that could build support among party members who share her belief that the political system has failed people who need help.

Senate candidate Betsy Sweet in Portland on Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Well known within the walls of the Maine State House for her advocacy and lobbying, Sweet gained statewide attention and a loyal following during her third-place finish last year in the party’s gubernatorial primary. Now she is once again pointing to a career devoted to bedrock Democratic issues – health care costs and accessibility, LGBTQ rights and protecting women’s access to abortion – as proof of her ability to take on Collins next year and be successful in Washington.

“As an advocate for 37 years, I have written and passed a lot of legislation, and I have worked on every state budget that there has been for 37 years,” Sweet told members of the group Bangor Indivisible recently. “But I have not had to be part of the system that I believe is broken, … so I think that gives me an incredible perspective of both experience and depth of experience over many, many years, but also the ability to see outside of the box and do it differently.”

Sweet is an energetic, well-spoken and unapologetically progressive policy wonk who endorses “Medicare for all” and the Green New Deal. Now a single mother of three girls, Sweet began her professional career in the 1970s working on passage of an Equal Rights Amendment and has served as executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby as well as “commissioner for women” to two Maine governors.

Since announcing her candidacy in June – just prior to Gideon’s much-anticipated entrance – the Hallowell resident has held roughly 20 town hall meetings throughout the state that have drawn anywhere from a handful to a 100-plus people.

Senate candidate Betsy Sweet campaigns at the climate strike in front of Portland City Hall in Friday, Dec. 6. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

That’s a tradition Sweet pledges to continue if elected to the Senate, promising to hold at least one town hall in each of Maine’s 16 counties every year in a not-so-subtle jab at Collins, who has not held a town hall meeting in years.

She is also meeting with small groups as part of a campaign that has gained some endorsements from national groups, including Justice Democrats, Blue America and Brand New Congress. But Sweet’s campaign has been undeniably hampered by the fact that Gideon – in addition to enjoying a higher profile as speaker of the House – has already been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (the party’s Senate campaign arm) and by large national groups such as EMILY’s List and the League of Conservation Voters.

Sweet’s fundraising haul of $183,000 as of Sept. 30 also pales in comparison to the $4.2 million raised by Gideon by that point, thanks in large part to the backing she has received from the party establishment in D.C.

It’s a reality that Sweet acknowledges and tries to address head-on when meeting with would-be voters.

Speaking in a downtown office building two weeks ago, Sweet introduced the dozen-plus members of Bangor Indivisible to her “incredible campaign team” by telling them to “look to your right and to your left – because you are the campaign team.”

“I believe 100 percent that the playbook that got us into this mess is not the playbook that is gonna get us out of this mess,” Sweet said. “I don’t believe that raising millions of dollars and putting negative ads on TV is what is going to change our politics.”

Saying Democrats “can’t out-Susan Collins Susan Collins” in fundraising, Sweet talks about a “kitchen table-to-kitchen table” campaign where values are the focal point.

At one point during her hourlong meeting in Bangor, an audience member disgruntled with political representatives asked Sweet how, if elected, she would stay in touch with how Maine voters feel and live up to her campaign priorities.

“To me, telling the truth and representing what the people of Maine need is much more important than being elected,” Sweet responded. “You have my word on that. I think I have 37 years to prove that I stayed in that lane.”

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