Stakes are high for Democrats in 3-way primary for Maine U.S. Senate seat

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For the first time in a generation, Maine will have a competitive U.S. Senate election, one that’s being closely watched and heavily funded nationally, with Democrats targeting Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in their quest to pick up four seats and gain a majority.

Collins narrowly defeated former Gov. Joe Brennan to win the seat of retiring Sen. William Cohen in 1996 and has been easily reelected three times. The only other open seat was when former Gov. Angus King, an independent, won an outright majority in 2012 against two major-party nominees to succeed Sen. Olympia Snowe.

Although Collins, 67, would make state history with a fifth six-year term, she faces formidable obstacles. She’s the only Republican member of Congress from New England among 21 House Democrats and nine other senators, and has fallen slightly behind Democratic front-runner Sara Gideon both in polls and in fundraising.

But Gideon, 49, faces her own test in the July 14 primary election, rescheduled from June 9. Saco attorney Bre Kidman, 32, and Hallowell advocate and lobbyist Betsy Sweet, 63, have stayed in the race; Kidman was the first to announce and Sweet the last, in June 2019, after Gideon, the Maine House speaker, filed in April.

Two other potential candidates, retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Richard Treacy of Oxford and former Google executive Ross LaJeunesse of Biddeford both filed with the Federal Election Commission, but later dropped out.

Responses from Kidman and Sweet in this story are based on personal interviews; Gideon declined to be interviewed but provided written answers to questions submitted to her

Campaign finance

At least for Gideon’s two challengers, money has emerged as a major issue.

At one time, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee stayed out of primary races, but not in recent years. As soon as Gideon announced, the DSCC endorsed her and steered contributions her way. As of March 31, she had raised $14.9 million and spent $10.2 million.

In contrast, Sweet raised $473,000 and Kidman $21,000; Kidman suspended fundraising last July.

Collins, meanwhile, raised $13.3 million and spent $8.6 million.

And those figures don’t include the tens of millions of dollars that will be spent by “independent” groups that have proliferated since the U.S Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision gutted restrictions on spending by so-called “dark money” PACs.

Sara Gideon talks with voters at a public supper in Gorham before the coronavirus pandemic put an end to in-person campaign appearances.

For Sweet, who helped write the referendum that produced Maine’s Clean Election Act in 1996, including public financing for legislative and gubernatorial – but not congressional – races, the DSCC endorsement shows what’s wrong with the system.

Citing her third-place finish in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor, behind Adam Cote and the eventual winner, Janet Mills, Sweet said “the political pros were shocked at how well we did.” She received Clean Election funding, she said, and “went to people where they lived, not by running a lot of TV ads.”

The gap between haves and have-nots is what drives her campaign, Sweet said: “There’s a divide in this country that I can see and feel, between the political and economic elite and regular people, who feel betrayed. I speak to that divide.”

Kidman is equally outspoken. “Why do we assume that the person who gets the most money should win?” they said. “Getting people to part with their money, why is that the bar? And in office, why are representatives spending five hours a day raising money for their next re-election?”

Gideon hasn’t directly addressed campaign funding. Asked what she would say to Mainers concerned that she might be beholden to large out-of-state donors, she said, “I’m proud of the grassroots movement we’ve built in support of our campaign,” citing endorsements from 75 elected officials and a dozen unions, including one representing state employees, as well as personal appearances in all 16 counties before the coronavirus shutdown.

Any of the three candidates could benefit from the “Be a Hero” fund, currently $4.6 million, set up by organizers after Collins voted to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If nominated, Kidman would donate $100,000 to the Maine Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign, and send the rest to those struggling from the pandemic.

Sweet said she would employ it in grassroots organizing, “because that’s where it came from.”

Absence of face time

Gideon’s opponents are also frustrated by the lack of candidate forums, virtual or otherwise.

One of the few scheduled debates, set for this week, was canceled after Gideon withdrew. She also declined to participate in a forum aired Monday night by News Center Maine. The only dates still on the calendar are July 6, 7, and 8, just before the primary vote; both Kidman and Sweet said they hope the forums go forward.

Bre Kidman, left, watches a supporter sign a petition in January to place her on the primary election ballot.

As a result, one of the few times all three candidates appeared on the same stage was last October, when they were hosted at the Sangerville Grange Hall by the Piscataquis County Democrats – a plucky group in Maine’s smallest county, where voter registration skews heavily Republican, but a Democrat running for the Legislature, Richard Evans, got 47 percent of the vote in 2018.

The three candidates struck themes similar to those they developed later, with Kidman tossing a zinger Gideon’s way: “We can’t afford to buy the election the way that Sara is adeptly showing she can and will.”

Sweet talked about “winning this race kitchen table to kitchen table … back of the truck to back of the truck.” Though her campaign is now mostly online, she said the focus remains the same, with supporters recruiting friends for virtual “house parties,” which Sweet joins nightly.

Gideon preferred to focus on Collins, as she’s continued to do, saying that, in terms of partisan control in Washington, the Maine race “means everything.”

Unlike the DSCC, the Maine Democratic Party remains neutral in primaries.

Kathleen Marra of Kittery, the state committee chair, told the forum she wasn’t sure “clearing the field” for one candidate is a good strategy. “We believe in a robust primary,” Marra said. “That can never hurt anyone.”

Following the leaders

On the issues, the candidates hew fairly closely to positions developed during the presidential primary campaign – though varying considerably in how specific they’re willing to be, and what legislation they support.

Gideon follows the moderate track plied by presumptive nominee Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar, while Sweet and Kidman steer progressive, as in the campaigns of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – with some exceptions.

Health care, a winner for Democrats in 2018, has achieved even greater prominence with the huge gaps in public-health preparedness revealed by the pandemic.

Gideon remains in the framework of the Affordable Care Act, now 10 years old, and her language closely resembles Buttigieg’s: There should be a buy-in so people not yet 65 can obtain Medicare, “while allowing those Americans who have private insurance and who like it, to keep it.”

All three candidates would reverse the Medicare Part D policy of not allowing the government to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical manufacturers, with Gideon citing drug prices as an issue she’s worked on as House speaker.

For Sweet, that’s not nearly enough. “Medicare for All” needs to become a reality as soon as possible, she said. A hybrid public-private system hasn’t worked, she said, and will never manage to provide universal access while containing the soaring costs that continually prevent greater access.

Yet she recognizes Congress probably won’t enact such a system in 2021. To start, she says it’s essential to lower the age for Medicare eligibility, not just allow a buy-in, and to raise the income threshold for Medicaid to cover many more people. She said both Medicare and Medicaid should offer better coverage for hearing, vision, and dentistry.

Kidman supports Medicare for All without preconditions and sees Congress itself as a major obstacle. “Half the members are millionaires,” they said. “They don’t have to go through what we have to.”

The only path to change “is changing the people who are making decisions,” Kidman said, adding that taking the profit motive away is crucial, because “it ensures we get as little care for our dollars as possible.”

Global warming is another focus of national Democratic campaigns, and the candidates’ responses are highly detailed. Kidman and Sweet support the “Green New Deal,” while Gideon does not.

The progressives recognize that the “New Deal” itself is more aspirational than a prescription for legislation, but Sweet said she “absolutely” sees its major tenets as essential steps to mitigating climate change.

“There’s no stopping (global warming),” Kidman said. “Damaging storms and coastal flooding are going to cost a lot more” than various carbon-reduction strategies being discussed.

Asked where to start, Sweet cited two possibilities.

“We need to immediately remove the $20 billion in fossil fuel subsidies from the federal budget,” and redirect it toward “renewable, continuous forms of energy,” such as tidal power. She said “regenerative agriculture” on a large scale, using no-till farming, farmland grazing of livestock, and cover-crop rotation could sequester 60 percent of the carbon now released through conventional agriculture.

A voter and her daughter get a selfie with Betsy Sweet, left, at a climate change rally in early 2020.

Gideon cited the “aggressive goals” Maine has set for renewable energy, but was less specific about how to get there. Her commitment at the federal level would include “investing in the clean-energy economy,” and to “upgrade our infrastructure in both the transportation and energy grid areas … and create incentives for large-scale reduction of carbon emissions.”

Asked about other issues she believes are central to her campaign, Gideon cast herself as a campaign finance reformer. “I’ll work to overturn Citizens United and end the influence of unlimited corporate and special interest money,” she said, criticizing Collins for her vote in favor of the 2017 tax cuts, suggesting campaign contributions influenced that vote.

Gideon backs the DISCLOSE Act, also supported by Sen. King, “which would crack down on secret spending in elections.” She also said she would ban “all members of Congress and senators from ever becoming lobbyists.”

Kidman often returns to the belief that both major parties are stage-managing elections so that “corporate-friendly candidates” are the only ones on the November ballot.

On health care and global warming, Kidman said, “they use the right language without doing anything. … They’re not showing up for multi-candidate forums, not being challenged on their claims, not being held accountable.”

Sweet wants Democrats to think bigger. She said one reason past Democratic administrations have failed to enact health-care legislation – as with Bill Clinton – or settled for half-solutions, like the Affordable Care Act under Barack Obama, is that they’ve set the wrong goals.

“Rather than asking what can get through Congress, we have to start with what’s going to create a system that will deliver care to everyone and is one we can actually afford,” Sweet said. “Every time we ask the American people if that’s what they want, there’s a resounding yes.”

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and former editor of Maine Times.

Sara Gideon

Sara Gideon

It was shortly after moving to Freeport from her native Rhode Island in 2004 that Sara Gideon heard from neighbors who were interested in finding someone to run for the Town Council.

In a story she often tells about getting involved in politics, it was her husband, Ben, they had in mind. He wasn’t interested, but she was.

“Why was it they didn’t ask me?” she wondered.

Gideon ran for and won the seat, becoming vice chair, and then in 2012 was elected to an open Maine House of Representatives seat from the district including Freeport and Pownal.

Gideon’s only prior political experience was as an intern in Sen. Claiborne Pell’s office near the end of the Rhode Island Democrat’s 36-year tenure. She graduated from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

In the term-limited Legislature, House members rise quickly, and by her second term, Gideon was assistant majority leader, with a clear path to becoming speaker in her third.

Along with her predecessor, Mark Eves, Gideon is the only House speaker since term limits took effect in 1996 to serve more than one two-year term. Both ended up running for higher office in their second term: Eves for governor and now Gideon for U.S. Senate.

Despite her office, Gideon hasn’t previously sought votes from a large group of Mainers; House districts have a population of just over 8,000, so Gideon’s early campaign ads have been largely biographical.

House Democrats have enjoyed some electoral success recently; in Gideon’s first election as caucus leader, they lost one seat for a total of 77 in the 151-member body, but gained 11 seats in the 2018 sweep, and now have 88 members in the caucus.

Gideon and her husband, who is an attorney with Berman & Simmons in Portland, have three children. 

— Douglas Rooks

Bre Kidman

Bre Kidman

A self-described performance artist, defense attorney, and genderqueer person, Bre Kidman defies all the stereotypes about those who run for public office. Non-binary, Kidman uses the pronouns “they, them, theirs,” a point that caused confusion in many early news reports.

Kidman grew up in Maine and believed that one benefit of its political system was being able to directly address lawmakers at every level.

A meeting with “a bored staffer” in Sen. Susan Collins’ office contradicted that notion: “All I wanted was to find out the reasons she was considering voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh. All I ever got was ‘She’s got a lot to think about.’”

A Senate candidate was born, one who’s still just two years over the minimum statutory age. “Some people think I’m too weird to run for office,” Kidman said. “Why does just one kind of person get to make decisions for all of us? Why shouldn’t Congress represent the entirety of the country?”

Even though gay and lesbian candidates are now seen as mainstream, and many have been elected, “that support hasn’t extended to transgender candidates,” Kidman said. “No one else has run for Senate.”

Kidman’s campaign is resolutely different. “If I get elected, it will be because I haven’t made a fundraising call since July after we gathered seed money,” Kidman said. “I will not sit in a call center. I didn’t want to run my campaign that way.”

At each step, Kidman said, there have been unexpected choices: “After law school, I thought I wanted to be a prosecutor. Then I found out what defendants without money have to go through.”

Kidman has since specialized in public defense, in a state that’s the only one without a formal public defender system.

The ranked-choice system should lead to more honest voting, Kidman said: “If people rank me first, even if I lose, we will know that people heard the message and think this is the right thing to do. I might not run again, but I want to help people who want to change the system, who demand it.” 

— Douglas Rooks

Betsy Sweet

Betsy Sweet

Since she first started work at the Statehouse 37 years ago, helping to build the Maine Women’s Lobby, Betsy Sweet has seen herself as ahead of the curve.

As a lobbyist and advocate for a wide variety of progressive causes through her firm, Moose River Associates, Sweet has been a familiar figure in negotiations with legislators on hundreds of transactions that make up every legislative session.

When she ran for governor in 2018, one of her aims was to demonstrate the viability for the top state race of the Clean Elections system she helped design. No one has yet been elected governor as a publicly financed candidate, but she feels she achieved her goal by finishing 1,500 votes from second place, and that a U.S. Senate seat is within reach two years later.

Sweet is a poised and confident candidate and insists she has a path to victory.

“There are probably only 100,000 votes in this primary,” she said, and she has a loyal band of predominantly young followers. In the final poll before the June 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary – the first-ever statewide ranked-choice election – most candidates’ supporters said they might vote for another candidate, but only 15 percent of Sweet’s did.

Although coronavirus has severely limited in-person contacts since March, Sweet said it’s the quality of such encounters, not just their quantity, that could make the difference. Although she conceded this isn’t quite the kind of campaign she expected, she said she’s used “to going to where people live, where they are.” 

Sweet has lived for many years with her three children in the Hallowell home that she once shared with former partner Dale McCormick, who was a state senator and state treasurer. It makes sense, she said, to launch her own bid for public office.

“I have the depth of knowledge, and ability to answer constituents’ questions, and a willingness to lead change,” Sweet said. “Despite everything, I’m still optimistic about what it’s possible to achieve in our country.”

— Douglas Rooks