Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon is waging a back-and-forth advertising battle with national Republicans over her response to sexual misconduct allegations against a Democratic state lawmaker in 2018.

Ads by the National Republican Senatorial Committee say Gideon, as speaker of the Maine House, sat for months on information she had about former state Rep. Dillon Bates. He resigned from the House in August 2018, after a published report that he engaged in inappropriate behavior with several female students at the now-closed Maine Girls Academy in Portland. Bates has not been charged with a crime.

The Republican PAC has spent about $3.1 million to oppose Gideon, one of three Democrats vying to take on incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who is seeking her fifth term. Gideon’s Democratic challengers are lobbyist Betsy Sweet and attorney Bre Kidman. The primary vote happens Tuesday.

It’s the second time in two years Republicans have used the Bates issue against Democrats challenging Republican incumbents in Congress.

In 2018, the Maine Republican Party criticized Democrat Jared Golden’s response to the Bates allegations. Golden, who was then assistant majority leader in the Maine House, was running to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin in the 2nd Congressional District.

Click on the image to view the ad.

Gideon’s campaign, in a video message from the candidate, has taken the unusual step of denouncing the attacks, saying she was the first official to call for Bates to resign once the allegations surfaced publicly.

“These attacks are a new low for Senator Collins,” said Maeve Coyle, communications director for Gideon’s campaign, in an email. “Sara was the first person to call on the state representative to resign, and Senator Collins knows that. We’ve known for some time how much Susan Collins has changed over 24 years in Washington, but she’s again making that abundantly clear.”

Click on the image to view the ad.

Between them, Gideon’s campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have released six online and TV ads on the Bates issue. That’s an unusually long advertising exchange over a single issue, and a likely indicator that the topic resonates with both Democrats and Republicans.

Bates resigned from the House 17 days after Gideon asked him to step down, amid discussions among lawmakers about whether the Legislature should launch its own Ethics Committee investigation into Bates’ actions. That investigation never came to pass.

He and his attorney denied any wrongdoing. A Maine Department of Health and Human Services investigation could not corroborate claims made against Bates to a child abuse hotline, according to a statement issued by DHHS in September 2018.

A spokesman for the Republican committee defended the ads Tuesday, noting that Bates left his job at the Maine Girls Academy in November 2017, nine months before his resignation from the House, and then took a job at another southern Maine high school. The spokesman also pointed out that Gideon’s staff has acknowledged questioning Bates months before he stepped down.

“Gideon is unable to answer for why she believed an alleged sexual predator over the allegations of underage victims,” said Nathan Brand, press secretary for the Republican committee. “Rather than pursue justice, Gideon kept the serious allegations to herself for months. Only once these allegations were made public by the press did she do anything. Maine voters deserve to know why Gideon chose not to act when presented with such disturbing allegations.”

One of the Republican committee ads takes Gideon to task for not calling for a Legislative Ethics Committee investigation after the news about Bates broke in August. “For almost six whole months Speaker Gideon dragged her feet, placing party loyalty over justice,” a female narrator says. “Haven’t we had enough of that? Susan Collins makes the tough calls. You might not agree with all of them, but she’s been there for Maine.”

Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Collins’ re-election campaign, also noted that Gideon’s staff told reporters they were made aware of the allegations against Bates months before stories began appearing.

“Upon hearing of the allegations, Speaker Gideon did nothing – she didn’t initiate any type of investigation into these serious claims, she didn’t contact his former employer or anyone else to assess the situation,” Kelley said. “As Speaker Gideon admits in her own ads, it was only when evidence of misconduct was revealed by the press five months later that she instantly called for his resignation. The only thing that appears to have substantively changed about the allegations over those five months is that the public became aware of them.”

But Mary Erin Casale, a spokeswoman for the House speaker’s office, and Gideon’s Senate campaign staff have said Gideon and her office staff were unable to gather any corroborating evidence at the time rumors first surfaced, and said they warned Bates that allegations raised publicly would result in a demand for his immediate resignation.

They also said Gideon and her staff would not have been made aware of or entitled to any ongoing investigations conducted by police or the state DHHS.

In one ad rebuffing the attack on her failure to act more quickly, Gideon says, “I knew there would be false attacks when I ran for Senate, but the ads on the air for Susan Collins right now go too far. The truth is I was the first person to call on the state representative to resign when evidence of misconduct was revealed.”

Another ad from Gideon’s campaign uses a male narrator’s voice while highlighting a screen grab from the Republican committee ad.

“This is a lie and Susan Collins knows it,” the narrator says.

The third Gideon ad, which notes that she was the first lawmaker to call for Bates’ resignation, features a photo of Collins shaking hands with President Trump who has been accused of sexual assault by several women. “Susan Collins wants to talk about leadership,” the narrator says. “But even with mountains of evidence Susan Collins gives Donald Trump a pass.”

Coyle, communications director for Gideon’s Senate primary campaign, said Gideon had written or backed many bills to combat sexual assault or harassment and support women’s rights. Coyle said these include measures that extended the statute of limitations for sexual assault and abuse crimes; boosted funding for organizations that work with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault; and required mandatory sexual harassment awareness training for lobbyists.

Golden, the congressman who served with Gideon in the Maine House, was running his successful 2018 campaign to unseat Poliquin when he was attacked over the Bates issue.

A news release still archived on the Maine Republican Party’s web site criticizes Golden and Gideon for their response. The release acknowledges that Gideon was calling for Bates’ resignation but claims that Golden’s spokesman declared that there was “absolutely no truth” to the allegations against Bates.

“While Speaker Gideon has called on Rep. Dillon Bates to resign, Jared Golden appears to be avoiding comment,” the release says.

Actually, Golden did call for Bates to step down in a statement he issued the same day that Gideon called for Bates’ resignation.

Although the ad battle over the Bates resignation is unusual, it represents just a small slice of the costly campaigning underway in Maine’s 2020 Senate race, which is drawing national attention and record amounts of money. Collins and Gideon have raised more than $39 million to date, with tens of millions more flowing into and out of political groups supporting the two campaigns.

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