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Maine House Speaker Wins State Senate Primary, Will Challenge Susan Collins In November

House speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, speaks to the media near a polling station, July 14, 2020, in Portland, Maine.  (Elise Amendola/AP)
House speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, speaks to the media near a polling station, July 14, 2020, in Portland, Maine. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Aided by backing from national Democrats and aligned interest groups, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon won Tuesday’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary over State House lobbyist Betsy Sweet and Saco attorney Bre Kidman.

Based on unofficial results and 13% of precincts reporting, Gideon led the three-way contest with more than 70% of the total vote, a majority that will prevent the need for a runoff under Maine’s ranked-choice voting law. The Associated Press called the race at 9:34 p.m.

Gideon will now take on Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in a contest that has already drawn extensive attention from national media and is one of a handful of races that could determine control of the Senate next year. Once considered indomitable, Collins has seen her popularity tumble after a series of controversial votes and amid the deeply polarizing conduct of her party’s standard bearer, President Trump.

In a streamed speech, Gideon quickly went after Collins for growing out of touch with her constituents in Maine.

"We need new leadership, because after 24 years in Washington, Senator Collins has become a part of that broken system, putting special interests and her political party first. And Mainers know it and feel it."

Gideon has easily won four terms in the Legislature representing deep-blue Freeport. Defeating Collins, who has previously separated her electoral fortunes from unpopular Republican presidential nominees and incumbents, is expected to be difficult and expensive.

More than $40 million was raised by the field of candidates before Tuesday’s primary, the bulk of it going to Gideon and Collins, who have hauled in $22.7 million and $16 million, respectively. Outside groups with unlimited spending power have been bombarding Maine’s airwaves and digital space for more than a year, spending $15.5 million. That sum does not include groups posing as social welfare organizations in order to shield the identities of donors.

Gideon, who quickly became the frontrunner in the Democratic primary following an endorsement from Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and high-profile interest groups, was the leading beneficiary of the influx of outside spending. Her advantage over Sweet and Kidman ballooned in the pandemic-constrained primary contest as state mandated restrictions to contain the spread of the coronavirus hampered her challengers’ ability to offset their funding disadvantage with conventional retail campaigning.

Sweet raised more than $642,000 through the end of June. Kidman raised just $24,000.

Sweet and Kidman repeatedly railed against the early intervention by national Democrats. They also criticized Gideon for her limited participation in candidate debates.

National Republican groups repeatedly attempted to influence the Democratic primary by highlighting Schumer’s effort to box out Gideon’s challengers. They also sought to define Gideon, who is not well-known outside of the Maine State House and her district, by filing a series of campaign ethics allegations and assigning her nicknames such as “shady Sara” and “sneaky Sara.” Those same groups have also attempted to frame Gideon as “unknown” and “risky” and have urged Maine voters not to “gamble on Gideon.”

The messaging dovetails with Collins’ effort to reassure Maine voters that she remains a known, independent voice in the U.S. Senate. Her ads have highlighted her efforts to secure federal funding for various initiatives while also acknowledging that the Trump presidency — without mentioning it — has yielded votes that many of her previous supporters may not agree with.

Chief among those, Collins’ vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, a decision that drew widespread condemnation from those who support a woman’s right to an abortion. The Kavanaugh vote prompted liberal pressure groups to team up and raise more than $4 million to help Collins’ Democratic opponent.

Collins is also under fire for her vote for the 2017 Republican tax cut law. Critics of the law argue that it disproportionately benefited the wealthy and corporations while exploding the national deficit. But the law also eliminated the tax penalty in the Affordable Care Act, a move that has since allowed the Trump administration and Republican attorneys general to assert in a lawsuit now before the U.S. Supreme Court that the entire law should be invalidated.

The Supreme Court is not expected to rule on the case until after the November election, but uncertainty over the health care law and Republican efforts to scuttle it have proven a useful weapon for Democrats, who used health care access to retake the U.S. House in 2018.

Collins has other obstacles to clear if she is to secure her fifth term. She declined to vote for the president in 2016, calling Trump unfit for the office because of his conduct and temperament. While she is occasionally been critical of the president since then, it has not persuaded her critics. It is also provided grist for Gideon and Democrats who argue that Maine’s senior senator, routinely described as a centrist, has changed.

They have repeatedly cited her vote to acquit the president of impeachment charges that he obstructed Congress and asked a foreign country, Ukraine, to intervene in the upcoming election on Trump’s behalf.

Meanwhile, some conservative hardliners have become increasingly suspicious of Collins during Trump’s presidency. Max Linn, who failed to qualify for a 2018 U.S. Senate run after many of his candidate petitions were ruled invalid, has submitted nomination papers for a bid as an independent this year. Linn, a self-avowed Trump loyalist, could give the president’s supporters in Maine a non-Collins option in November.

Runner-up Sweet said that Gideon is well-positioned, despite Collins' decades of statewide campaign experience.

"She certainly has a machine, but I think Sara has proven that she does too,” said Sweet. “And I think the thing that Susan Collins has last is she's lost the trust of Maine people. She has too many times said one thing and then done another. Or known what was most important to the people of Maine, and then done something completely different."

Meanwhile, Lisa Savage, a green independent, has already qualified for the November ballot. The election will be decided by Maine’s ranked-choice voting law, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. The rankings are used if one candidate fails to obtain a majority of votes after the initial vote. Tiffany Bond, who ran as an independent in the 2nd Congressional District race in 2018, has also expressed interest in running, but was not yet listed as an official candidate with the Secretary of State’s office as of Tuesday afternoon.

Fred Bever contributed to this report.

This story is a production of New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by Maine Public Radio on July 14. 

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