During the pandemic, life could well prove difficult for candidates challenging incumbents of both political parties at the state and federal level, both in Maine and all over the country. The restrictions imposed during the pandemic are already making it harder on all candidates. That’s been reflected in a variety of ways already here in Maine, beginning with the primary being moved from early June (that’s right, it should have happened already) to mid-July. That will give challengers who also face competitive primaries – like the three Republicans vying to take on Jared Golden – less time for their general election campaign.

It will also fundamentally change the nature of fundraising. Ordinarily, much of fundraising is based around live, in-person events. These give donors the opportunity to meet the candidate and evaluate their campaign in person. Now, none of those events are happening at all – at least, not for a while – so these important opportunities are rapidly passing candidates by. That’s especially the case thanks to the timing, with restrictions only barely beginning to be lifted as we enter summer. This isn’t quite as disastrous for incumbents, as they ought to have an extensive list of reliable donors who have given to them time and time again in the past. Instead, it will hurt challengers the most – especially those who weren’t recruited by the party elite or lack the ability to self-finance.

It’s been a major issue in Maine for state legislative candidates seeking to qualify for clean election funding. Those candidates are finding it even tougher than usual to collect all the necessary five dollar checks. That’s led to fewer Clean Elections candidates than in years past, which could absolutely have an impact on the fall elections. In Maine, unlike in federal races, the party apparatus can recruit candidates without placing their ability to fundraise front and center. They know that, as long as their candidates can qualify for Clean Elections, they’ll have enough money to at least operate their campaigns. Without those funds, though, there may be more than a few candidates all over the state who seemed solid on paper but end up struggling on a shoestring budget. That may leave the two parties scrambling in the fall as they try to decide where to focus their limited resources.

The inability to host or attend events of any kind will also make it that much harder for challengers to introduce themselves to voters. This has been especially evident in the U.S. Senate race, where before the pandemic began, Sara Gideon was trying to have constant events to meet voters. She and her supporters were regularly bragging about crowd sizes at her events (in an almost Trumpian way), even as they consistently criticized Senator Collins for not holding public events of her own. That’s hardly a fair criticism, of course – Collins is imminently accessible to voters, and has been for years – but it’s a logical strategy. Portraying any long-time incumbent as aloof and out of touch is a time-honored tradition, and pairing that criticism with constant events of your own is smart politics.

Then, with the onset of the pandemic, criticizing a candidate because they’re not holding jam-packed events suddenly seemed more than a little out of touch. In fact, it seems completely ridiculous when your campaign has been turned overnight into one based around tweets, videos and conference calls. It’s even more hypocritical when you decide to adjourn the Legislature early, and won’t bring it back into session, while Collins and the rest of the Senate are still hard at work in Washington. Now, it’s become clear that Susan Collins is the one still working throughout the pandemic, while Gideon is the one (well, until last week, anyway) skipping debates and staying home.

The pandemic, and the restrictions around traditional campaign events, will likely hurt challengers across the political spectrum and all over the state, but it could end up being the worst for Sara Gideon. She’s already lost a lot of governing time, a lot of campaigning time, and a key talking point in her bid to unseat Collins. Like many candidates, she’s stuck in an odd sort of limbo where she’s not doing her regular job but can’t really campaign in any normal way either. That severely hampers her ability to introduce herself to voters beyond her base – especially in a large, rural state like Maine, where meeting voters one by one is part of our way of life.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
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