Now that the summer has turned into fall – meteorologically, at least – we’re entering the home stretch of the campaign for all candidates, from local races up to the White House. Here in Maine, that means that we’ll finally get a chance Friday to see all four candidates running for the U.S. Senate on stage together for the very first time, in a debate hosted by the Portland Press Herald, Bangor Daily News and News Center Maine. Yes, that’s right, we have four candidates for Senate – not just incumbent Republican Susan Collins and Democratic nominee Sara Gideon, but independents Max Linn and Lisa Savage.

The interesting thing about this lineup is that both major-party candidates have independents challenging them from their ideological fringes: Conservative activist Max Linn is an avid Trump supporter, while former Green activist Lisa Savage wholeheartedly embraces the liberal agenda. On this stage, Collins firmly occupies the center lane: she’s not only been willing to publicly criticize Trump, but she votes with him less often than any other Senate Republican. Linn, meanwhile, is running a whole campaign based on absolute loyalty to Trump and his agenda. That’s a tough sell in a state where Trump got less than 45 percent of the vote.

It’s curious, though, that Gideon is facing opposition from her left, because she’s hardly a moderate. In fact, nearly every time she voted against Janet Mills on an issue, it was because she took a position to the left of the governor. While that may put Gideon firmly in the mainstream of the Maine Democratic Party, it doesn’t put her in the mainstream of the state as a whole. Gideon doesn’t fit the mold of the sort of moderate, pragmatic Democrat who’s been able to see success statewide in the past.

The same was true in the primary: All of the opposition Gideon faced was from her left. That’s not because moderate Democrats have entirely vanished from the Maine political scene; it’s just that they (wisely) had no interest in challenging Susan Collins. There are any number of seasoned, well-known current and former officeholders who may have been better-suited to challenge Collins than Gideon, such as former Gov. John Baldacci and former U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. Baldacci, with his experience running statewide and deep ties in Bangor, would have been especially formidable; Michaud, having represented the 2nd District, could have cut into Collins’ numbers on her own turf. It’s not just well-known moderates who passed on challenging Collins, but better-known liberals as well, like 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree.

So, Democrats ended up with Sara Gideon, who’s exactly the sort of Democrat who’s come up short not just against Collins in the past, but in other statewide races, too: A Democrat from the 1st Congressional District. The last Democrat from the 1st District to actually win a statewide election was Joe Brennan in 1982. Since then, it’s been a string of failures, from Tom Allen and Mark Lawrence to Chellie Pingree and Shenna Bellows. There have been men and women, liberals and moderates, well-known and lesser-known candidates, but Democrats from the 1st District tend not to do well statewide.

To be sure, it’s clear that national Democrats really do believe in Sara Gideon, but it may have less to do with her as an individual than simple math: They need to win Maine to win a majority. They’re counting on anti-Trump fervor and the current polarized climate to carry the day. If that approach works, it may well open the door to other Democrats from southern Maine finding success statewide. It will also show that Maine, like the rest of the country, is becoming increasingly partisan, rather than being a bastion of New England independence.

That’s why it’s hard to see Gideon making any serious efforts in Friday’s debate to differentiate herself from national Democrats: Her whole campaign strategy is to do exactly the opposite. Although Democrats often accuse Trump of being divisive, in Maine’s U.S. Senate race, that’s exactly the tactic they’ve been adopting themselves. Moreover, although Gideon has occasionally voted against Mills, she’s hardly ever publicly criticized the administration on anything. If elected, she’ll take the same tack in Congress: occasionally straying to the left of Chuck Schumer, but never criticizing him.

If you think that’s unfair, just wait until Friday night and compare the number of times Collins disagrees with Trump or her party to how often Gideon does. That will be a good measure of who’s truly independent and bipartisan and who’s the loyal party foot soldier.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at: [email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel

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