From left, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, Bre Kidman and Betsy Sweet File photos

Maine Democrats view 2020 as their best shot in decades to unseat Republican Sen. Susan Collins and potentially help flip control of the U.S. Senate.

But first, they need to choose.

Despite the multimillion-dollar ad campaigns and a raging social media war between Collins’ camp and those backing Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, registered Democrats will officially decide on Tuesday who will challenge the four-term Republican this November.

Gideon is the clear favorite – in terms of visibility, money and backing of the DC-based campaign machine – but is headed into a ranked-choice primary against two more progressive Democratic candidates: lobbyist Betsy Sweet and attorney Bre Kidman.

The coronavirus pandemic not only prevented the door-knocking, hand-shaking and public speechifying that are integral to any run for Congress in Maine but also delayed the primary by more than a month. Complicating matters further, few polling organizations that surveyed on the Maine Senate race have bothered to ask Democratic voters about the primary match-up but, instead, assumed a Gideon vs. Collins contest in November.

Brian Duff, associate professor and chairman of the political science department at the University of New England, said he views both Gideon and Sweet as strong contenders against Collins this fall. Duff suspects that Gideon will win the nomination on the first vote count but said there is a chance the two could end up in a ranked-choice runoff.

“But the mood among Democrats this year seems to be pragmatic, and Gideon will probably strike most folks as the person with the best chance to beat Collins, not least due to her fundraising (and the many ads that it has paid for),” Duff said.

‘ANXIOUS TO VOTE AND ENTHUSED’

Party registration data suggest that Maine Democrats are energized headed into the November elections, adding more than 40,000 new members since the last presidential election cycle. As a result, Democrats are now the largest voting bloc in the state, accounting for 36 percent of the voters compared to 32.5 percent who were unenrolled and 27.5 percent registered as Republicans.

It’s unclear how many Democrats will participate in a relatively low-profile Senate primary during a pandemic that has challenged the way everything in society functions, including voting. But more than 120,000 Democrats had requested absentee ballots from their municipal clerks as of last week, which is a record for a primary.

“That’s just showing you how anxious to vote and enthused Democrats are, and we are hearing it,” said Kathleen Marra, chairwoman of the Maine Democratic Party. While the state party isn’t endorsing any of the candidates, Marra said she interprets the surges in Democratic voter registrations and absentee ballot requests as indications of “how unsatisfied people are with Susan Collins” headed into November.

“We’ve got three great nominees, so we are really looking forward to whichever candidate the voters choose,” Marra said.

In most congressional campaigns, Gideon would appear poised to handily win Tuesday’s primary because of her massive campaign operation and backing from influential national groups. But Maine’s ranked-choice process means she’ll need to win more than 50 percent of the vote on the first tally to avoid giving either Sweet or Kidman a chance to vault ahead with the second-choice votes.

Sweet, who finished third in the ranked-choice Democratic primary for governor in June 2018, said the recent Black Lives Matter rallies and focus on racial inequality have energized younger, more progressive voters. And even though non-presidential primaries tend to draw largely from party loyalist ranks, Sweet said she knows plenty of those folks, too.

“Assuming that the party loyalists are going to do what the Washington establishment says is an assumption we should not make,” Sweet said.

Gideon said she supports ranked-choice voting and is pleased the process will be used in the race.

“That being said, my goal … is to win on the first round,” Gideon said. “But we will see what happens on Tuesday.”

MADAM SPEAKER

Although the last of the three candidates to formally enter the race, Gideon was quickly the perceived frontrunner because of her higher-profile position as Maine’s House speaker but also – and crucially – because of the immediate backing she received from national groups.

Most notably, the campaign arm of the national party in Washington, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, quickly backed her candidacy, as have other influential groups like EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the League of Conservation Voters. On Thursday, the Maine AFL-CIO added its endorsement to the list.

The 48-year-old mother of three got her start in public service while serving on the Freeport Town Council before being elected to four terms in the Maine Legislature.

Gideon has campaigned on such bedrock Democratic issues as reproductive rights, expanding access to affordable health care, the environment, LGBTQ concerns and education. Officially known as “Madam Speaker” when she wields the gavel in the Maine House, Gideon also points to her numerous, high-profile clashes with former Republican Gov. Paul LePage as evidence of her willingness to “stand up to bullies.”

But from the beginning, Gideon and her campaign have focused all of their attention on a presumed November race against Collins rather than Tuesday’s primary.

The crux of Gideon’s anti-Collins message is that the Republican has changed during her 23 years in Washington and is ignoring the will of Maine voters, most notably on her pivotal vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in October 2018.

Before the coronavirus shut down in-person campaigning, Gideon was frequently drawing hundreds of people to “Suppers with Sara” events around the state where attendees had a picnic-style meal before listening to the candidate speak and asking questions. In an interview, Gideon said those were telling moments to her.

“I remember thinking back in November, wow, the election is a year away and we are seeing these kinds of crowds turning out,” Gideon said. “It just really indicated that there is strong feeling in the electorate and an urgency about the need for something different.”

Collins’ campaign and outside groups backing the incumbent have returned the favor, spending millions of dollars on ads attacking Gideon. Those attacks have highlighted Collins’ role in congressional coronavirus relief measures while portraying Gideon as absent during pandemic. In Maine, as in other states, state lawmakers have had a limited role in handling the response to COVID-19 because of the sweeping emergency powers granted to governors.

“It’s unfortunate that Sara Gideon skipped nearly every debate and denied primary voters the chance to get to know her,” said Collins campaign spokesman Kevin Kelley. “But it’s not surprising she chose to forgo the debates since she has also forgone her job as speaker of the House for the past 115 days.”

THE ADVOCATE

Sweet has been a prominent face within the hallways of the Maine State House for more than three decades as she advocated on issues affecting low-income Mainers, women, sexual assault survivors, the disabled community and other underrepresented groups.

A former executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby and Commissioner for Women under two governors, Sweet now runs her own lobbying firm, which she has said gives her the ability to represent only the clients she chooses. The 63-year-old raised three daughters as a single mother.

Among her top campaign priorities are supporting Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, universal pre-kindergarten instruction, and reducing the influence of money on the political system.

During campaign events and speeches, Sweet often points to her leadership in enacting the first Clean Elections Act and the first Family Medical Leave Act in the nation. She calls herself “the Sweet spot in the race” because she has decades of policy and advocacy experience but has never held elective office in what she sees as a broken political system.

During the 2018 Democratic race for governor, Sweet finished third in a seven-person primary but significantly closed the vote gap with now-Gov. Janet Mills during the ranked-choice tabulation. And she believes the ranked-choice process makes the 2020 Senate primary a wide-open contest.

Sweet has picked up endorsements from several national progressive groups, including Justice Democrats and Democracy for America. More recently, nearly two dozen leaders of Maine’s immigrant and minority communities as well as civil rights activists announced their support for Sweet.

“There is a momentum that you can feel coming in our direction, and I think it is coming from the state of the world,” Sweet said. “There are so many crises that are big crises and people want someone who will think about solutions as big as those crises.”

Sweet added: “I think that we are poised to surprise people on Tuesday.”

THE CHANGE-MAKER

Kidman also views a lack of political experience (at least as an elected official) as a qualification for U.S. Senate. The 32-year-old Saco resident, who is nonbinary and goes by the pronouns they/them/their, said they can relate to the challenges of the average Maine household.

“I’m a medium-income Mainer with student loan debt and bad health insurance,” Kidman said during a recent debate on Maine Public. “When I say we need Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and student debt forgiveness, what I mean is I need those things, too.”

A criminal defense attorney who largely works with indigent clients, Kidman decided to enter the race after watching Collins’ speech explaining her plans to vote for Kavanaugh.

Kidman watched that speech at the airport in Washington, D.C., after trying unsuccessfully to meet with the senator personally as part of the flood of Kavanaugh opponents in Maine who went to the nation’s capital as part of the #MeToo movement. That followed another incident in which Kidman felt Collins’ office ignored analysis gleaned from the attorney’s work on the sex trade and with sex workers.

“The way our elected officials are behaving is why we have such bad civic engagement in the county,” Kidman said in an interview. “If this is what happens when you try to engage, why would we engage? And they don’t want civic engagement, they want people to throw money at them.”

In addition to Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, money in politics has been a top issue for Kidman. Their campaign has raised just $23,000 – 1/1,000th the amount raised by Gideon – and has distributed the majority of that money to low-income families in need, food banks or other charitable causes.

Kidman said ranked-choice voting gives candidates “an opportunity to say that we don’t have to compromise on our values” while giving voters a chance to vote first for the candidate they prefer. Kidman said they have a strong understanding of state and federal policy but not the big-money connections.

“Realizing that was the biggest barrier, I said that’s not good enough … for me not to do this,” Kidman said.

Kidman accused the national party of “anti-democracy” for essentially hand-picking Maine’s Democratic Senate nominee for voters. Asked if the Kidman campaign would have the support and resources necessary to defeat the incumbent, they replied:

“Quite candidly, I think it is harder to beat Sara Gideon than it is to beat Senator Collins,” Kidman said.

CAMPAIGNING AMID COVID

The coronavirus hit Maine and the nation in March just as the Democratic Senate primary would have started to heat up. As a result, all three campaigns were forced to cancel appearances, fundraisers and other events as they transitioned to online or phone-based organizing.

Prior to the pandemic, Gideon held 19 of her “Suppers with Sara” events in community halls around the state. Afterward, she has hosted about a dozen virtual town halls as well as online roundtable events with health care workers, Bath Iron Works laborers and other groups in addition to stepping up her phone calls.

“It’s not as good as seeing people in person, but we have managed to adjust,” Gideon said.

Kidman was forced to cancel events planned in all 16 counties to raise money for charitable causes rather than for her campaign. Instead, they raised more than $1,200 for causes via a 24-hour telethon online featuring local bands and other guests. About 80 volunteers have also been phonebanking for the campaign.

This weekend, Kidman said the plan is for several “car parades” of supporters driving to various locations.

Sweet had also been traveling the state holding meet-and-greet events for months prior to the first COVID-19 cases in Maine. Since then, the Hallowell resident has held several dozen town hall-style or smaller “virtual door-knocking” events online as well as, more recently, “Breakfast with Betsy” events live on Facebook.

Sweet also attended Black Lives Matter rallies in Portland, Bangor and Augusta.

“I think it is very important for us to show up and listen,” she said.

Kidman and Sweet have also participated in more than a dozen candidate forums and debates, most of them online. But Gideon, the presumed frontrunner, has only participated in a handful of events with her primary opponents and declined invitations to two televised debates during the final week of the campaign.

Both Sweet and Kidman have accused Gideon of attempting to avoid sharing a stage with them during events with unscripted questions and accuse her of trying to act like she is already the nominee. Collins has also sought to exploit the internal tension among the Democratic candidates.

“WATCH NOW: Democratic candidates for Senate debate – well, except Sara Gideon … Who, once again, doesn’t show up,” the Collins campaign wrote in a July 7 tweet before a WGME debate.

RECORD MONEY

Record sums have already flowed into Maine’s U.S. Senate campaign – and on the Democratic side, more than 97 percent of that has gone to Gideon.

She had raised more than $23 million as of June 24, which is nearly three times more than any Maine political candidate has ever raised for an election prior to 2020. To put that staggering sum in further context: the eight candidates who were on Maine’s U.S. Senate ballots in 2012, 2014 and 2018 raised roughly $16 million combined.

Sweet, by comparison, reported $646,000 in contributions through June 24 while Kidman had collected $23,000 from donors.

Gideon’s massive fundraising haul even before the Democratic primary is illustrative of the national focus on Maine’s Senate race this year as out-of-state donors flood the campaign coffers of both the presumptive Democratic nominee and Collins. Outside organizations have also already funneled more than $14 million into the race potentially pivotal to control of the Senate.

While the Gideon campaign points out that more than 13,500 Maine residents have donated to the candidate, the majority of her dollar figure total has come from out-of-state donors. The same is true of Collins, reflecting the limited cash pool available to political candidates in the small, relatively poor state.

The Gideon campaign also points out that roughly 97 percent of contributions have been below $200.

Gideon’s primary opponents have seized on her fundraising, however, to portray her as part of the problem in Washington, D.C., rather than part of a solution.

In an interview, Sweet called raising that amount of money “obscene” and “unconscionable,” particularly during a pandemic when many Mainers are struggling to pay their bills or buy food because of lost income.

During last week’s debate on Maine Public, Kidman pointed out that Gideon has listed “getting money out of politics” as one of her top priorities.

“You’re the only person in this race who has spent millions of dollars on ads and on lists of people to call for more money,” Kidman said to Gideon. “And you’re the only person in this race who has fundraisers with fossil fuel executives and accepted money from corporate-funded leadership and idea PACs. So my question for you is: Why are you lying to Maine voters? And wouldn’t it make it harder to attack you if you simply told the truth about how you are running this campaign?”

Unflustered by the question and accusation, Gideon replied that special interests and corporations “have far too great a say in Washington, where politicians take their money directly and do their bidding.” But Gideon said her track record during eight years as a state lawmaker, including four as House speaker, shows she is willing to stand up to corporate interests.

“We have taken on the health insurance industry, we have taken on the drug companies, instituting programs to lower the cost of prescription drugs,” Gideon said. “We have taken on the fossil fuel companies, combating climate change and even the energy utilities. That is the kind of person that we need standing up for us in the U.S. Senate.”

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