Democrats have been trying to unseat longtime Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins for nearly 20 years and were handed resounding defeats each time.
Sara Gideon could make 2020 different.
Gideon, the Democratic speaker of Maine’s House of Representatives, is giving Collins the political fight of her life. Though she started out mostly unknown, apart from Maine political circles, polls show a very tight race with Gideon ahead. While a recent Quinnipiac University poll found Gideon with a 12-percentage-point lead, operatives in both parties say the gap is in the single digits — closer to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll showing Gideon ahead by 5 percentage points.
“Certainly the context of President Trump and the damage he has done, both proactively and also with the lack of leadership, is really important as voters think about who they want not only leading the country but also who they want representing us in the Senate,” Gideon told Vox in an interview. “Sen. Collins has made the choice not to stand up to this president, not to stand up for what Mainers think is right, and that is absolutely relevant to where we are right now.”
Before running for Senate, Gideon won recognition for helping to pass bold climate legislation that aims to achieve 100 percent renewable energy in Maine by 2050, as well as for gathering enough votes to override conservative Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill allowing access to the opioid overdose-reversing drug Naloxone without a prescription. Although Collins has been in Maine politics for much longer, Gideon has developed a following in the state.
“She’s an excellent speaker of the House, she knows policy,” said voter Ben Campo of North Yarmouth, Maine. “She listens to voters.”
If Collins can keep the race a referendum about her track record in Maine, most notably the millions of dollars she’s brought back to the state over the years, she has a shot at keeping her seat. But if Gideon can keep the race focused on national issues — and tie Collins to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump — it could be that much harder for Collins, who has so far kept silent on whether she supports Trump’s reelection bid, to remain in Congress.
“Sen. Collins likes to talk a lot about how she’s hopeful something’s going to happen, or how she co-signed a piece of legislation, or that she’s disappointed or concerned that something’s happening,” Gideon told supporters at a socially distanced campaign event. “In all seriousness, as long as Mitch McConnell is the majority leader in the Senate, it doesn’t matter if Susan Collins is hopeful or concerned or disappointed. Because if he doesn’t want it to happen, it will literally never see the light of day.”
Some Gideon supporters are also thinking about how Maine fits into the overall Senate map this year, which has Democrats on the offense in a number of swing states, including those that traditionally favor Republicans.
“This is the most important election in my life — this is it,” said Falmouth, Maine, voter Renee Givner after a recent Gideon campaign event. “If the Senate continues to be run by Mitch McConnell, we are in worse trouble than anyone expects.”
Maine is known for its independence, but there are 91,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state; Biden is polling well there, too. Collins has outrun Republican presidential candidates before, but she’ll have to outdo Trump by a large margin to keep her seat.
“We are confident that when Mainers look at their options in this race, they will choose to re-elect a Senator who is an experienced, proven, effective leader; knows every corner of the state; and was raised with Maine values,” Collins campaign spokesperson Annie Clark told Vox in a statement.
Vox recently interviewed Gideon on the competitiveness of her race, her top policy priorities if elected, and how climate change and warming oceans are altering her state’s economy. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
In past cycles, Sen. Susan Collins has handily beaten her Democratic challengers. Why do you think this year is different and so competitive?
I think there are a couple of reasons. First of all, we look at everything in the context of where we are, when it is, and what’s happening in the world around us. Certainly the context of President Trump and the damage he has done, both proactively and also with the lack of leadership, is really important as voters think about who they want not only leading the country but also who they want representing us in the Senate. Sen. Collins has made the choice not to stand up to this president, not to stand up for what Mainers think is right, and that is absolutely relevant to where we are right now.
The other piece of that is the fact that she has taken votes more and more that leave Mainers feeling left behind. Mainers are very practical people, thinking about what’s going on in their lives every day and the kind of help that they need. I think that’s what we’re seeing reflected here.
If you are elected in November, what would your first policy priority be in office?
Hard question, when there’s so much for us to do and to fix. So there is not one answer, there’s three, because I think these are the three imperatives for us.
First of all, we have to deal with what I think of as a foundational issue — and that is the fact that special interests have so much power that they are actually preventing us from getting things done. Reforming Washington in ways that include everything from overturning Citizens United to passing the DISCLOSE Act [the Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections Act] and reducing special interest influence on people is vitally important. It’s how we get the other work done.
The two policy areas that I feel are just the most important to focus on, not to the exclusion of others ... everywhere we go in the state of Maine, health care is what people tell us that they are most worried about, the greatest barrier for them and their success. So making sure that we are continuing to lower the cost of health care and to also make it more secure, especially in rural Maine, is really important.
The other, which you heard me talk about a number of times tonight, is climate. In Maine, we are very personally connected to our environment around us, our woods, our water, our air, but also our livelihoods. Our traditions are dependent on them as well, our very economy. That is something that Mainers are ready for their senator to take on.
I want to follow up specifically on climate with a two-part question. I want to ask if you support Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan he’s laid out, which includes some more aggressive targets, including 100 percent clean electricity by 2035.
Secondly, the effects of climate change have been very visible recently, with wildfires in the western United States and hurricanes in the southern part of the country. How is it visible here in New England?
Well, let me start by saying I hope Joe Biden becomes our next president, and I look forward to working with him as a senator and figuring out together how we should tackle climate change. In the interim, what I can share with you is that we have developed a climate plan that we released a couple of weeks ago. [We] can share that with you in the interest of answering the other part of your question, since that’s easy for you to get.
[Gideon’s climate plan calls for rejoining the Paris Climate agreement, passing legislation to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and undoing Trump’s rollbacks of vehicle emission regulations, among other things. Gideon also wants Maine to continue developing on-shore and offshore wind and scaling up biomass production. She supports a clean energy standard for utility companies, although she does not specify a timeline for achieving that.]
So here’s the thing. We see it around us every day. For us on this campaign trail, when you talk to people — it doesn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans, it doesn’t matter even if they’re wearing a Make America Great Again hat. They will share with you their experience in how climate is affecting us right now.
The Gulf of Maine is the second fastest warming body of ocean in the entire world. That means not only do we see iconic Maine lobsters migrating north, but we also see an increase in ocean acidification and a loss and change in marine life in conjunction with that. We are seeing sea level rise and we’re seeing erosion caused by that, and the intensity and unpredictability of storms that we see both coastal and inland. That absolutely is something that has a real cost associated with it for people, that they see and experience every day.
For farmers in Central Maine and northern Aroostook County, we’ve experienced the second-hottest summer on record for the second year in a row, and drought increasingly year after year, which impacts their crops. Even in the recreation and tourism world, we see changes. This is one that sounds very Maine, but the moose population is declining because of tick-borne diseases, and those tick-borne diseases and other pests are increasingly prevalent because of climate change.
Which sitting senator do you admire the most, and which do you see most closely matching your policy positions?
Oh, well, that’s a kind of question that I never like to answer. Look, why don’t I [share] some of the Maine senators that I think I’ve admired the most and look up to. First of all, Sen. [Ed] Muskie, who really changed the course of not just what was happening here in Maine but across the country, with the Clean Water Act. That was vitally important to us, and part of the reason I mentioned it is that we see it under threat with this president.
I also think of Margaret Chase Smith, who ironically Sen. Collins, I think, likes to think of herself as being like. She was an example of somebody who stood up when it was important to say what was right, and that is not what we see Sen. Collins doing. And I even look at Sen. [William] Cohen, who Sen. Collins used to work for, and the fact that he made the decision to say what he thinks about this president and whether he should be reelected.