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Pulse Newsletter: Postal Politics, DNC And 2nd District Ads

This is the inaugural issue of Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, a weekly update on Maine and national politics in the leadup to the November election.Click here to subscribe, and you'll receive an editioneach Friday morning.

The U.S. Postal Service was created by the Continental Congress in 1775, making it older than many American institutions as well as the Declaration of Independence. Its first postmaster general was Benjamin Franklin, who was paid an annual salary of $1,000 to create a system of postal routes between Savannah, Georgia, and Falmouth, Massachusetts — now known as Portland, Maine.

The USPS was born out of a fight, the American Revolution, and more specifically, colonists’ desire for the free distribution of letters and newspapers critical of the British Crown. Now, it’s front and center in a presidential election that some view as a battle for the fate of the same republic that the Postal Service helped create.

This week that battle made its way to Maine and one of the highest profile U.S. Senate races in the country.

At issue are a series of cost-cutting measures implemented — and now paused — by U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Republican mega donor and supporter of President Donald Trump. The changes have led to widespread delays in mail delivery, to the point that Democrats fear DeJoy is trying to assist the president’s reelection chances by delaying or discouraging mail and absentee voting in the November election.

DeJoy says he’s making the changes to save the agency from its longstanding financial troubles. But Democrats see a nefarious plot to sabotage the election during the pandemic, a belief intensified last week by Trump’s acknowledgment that he opposed $25 billion in emergency funding for the USPS because blocking it would effectively make universal mail-in voting impossible.

Credit Maine Public Illustration / Photos by Mark Vogelzang/Maine Public and J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
Photos by Mark Vogelzang/Maine Public and J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
Sara Gideon (left) and Susan Collins.

Enter Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon, who gathered alongside postal workers in Portland this week and said DeJoy should resign if he can’t explain his changes. Gideon also criticized Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins for co-authoring a 2006 bill that many argue is giving the postmaster general cover to wantonly slash the USPS operating budget.

The 2006 measure included a provision now cited as part — emphasis on “part” — of the USPS’ financial problems.

It mandated that the USPS pre-fund health care costs for retired employees, with prescribed payments of about $5 billion a year.

No other federal agency has such a requirement, yet the entire bill was supported at the time by Republicans and Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. Schumer, the Senate minority leader, is now steering millions of dollars toward Maine to help Gideon unseat Collins. Within hours of Gideon’s press conference, Senate Majority PAC, a political group associated with Schumer, announced it was spending six figures on advertising attacking Collins for co-sponsoring the proposal — which Schumer also co-sponsored.

Setting aside Schumer’s apparent about-face on the 2006 law (hypocrisy, after all, has proven a nonlethal wound in politics), the PAC’s context-free attack on Collins illustrates how campaign ads, and politics in general, can make a mess of complicated issues like the USPS, an agency often viewed and overhauled through the lens of private enterprise instead of the public service ethos that prompted the founders to enshrine it in the U.S. Constitution.

In this case, the attack may have also undercut Gideon because it obscured another critique of Collins.

There’s a growing movement in Congress to repeal the USPS pre-fund mandate. A bill doing just that in the House has 300 co-sponsors, including more than 50 Republicans, many from rural states like Maine, which depend on the USPS. A companion bill in the Senate has eight co-sponsors, including four Republicans, also from rural states.

Gideon also supports the repeal.

Collins has not signed on, although she has previously backed changing the 2006 mandate so retirement benefits are pre-funded over a longer period of time instead of every year.

Convention attention

The Democratic National Convention was disjointed, strange, often lonely and sometimes interrupted by technical glitches.

In other words, it was a pretty decent representation of American life these days.

There were some cool moments — and no, we’re not talking about the brooding masked man holding a mountain of greasy, fried squid when Rhode Island appeared for the delegate roll call.

Besides, Maine’s roll call was, objectively, better.

Set against a bucolic backdrop, Maine’s first openly gay, Black state Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, cheerfully talked about living in the countryside with his husband, running a farm, a farmstand and a bed and breakfast.

“My American dream? I’m living it!” he declared before casting nine delegate votes for Sen. Bernie Sanders and 22 for Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Judging by the social media reaction, Hickman may have done more to boost Maine’s appeal as a destination in 30 seconds than the $2 million the Maine Tourism Association is spending to lure visitors here during the pandemic.

Not-so-secret weapon

There have been a lot of nasty campaign ads over the past few months, and plenty that deserved, and received, extensive fact checks.

That has certainly been the case in the U.S. Senate race, but it has been relatively quiet in the 2nd Congressional District contest between Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden and Republican challenger Dale Crafts.

That’s likely to change given that the race is expected to draw a lot of attention from outside groups with deep pockets and consultants skilled in the dark arts of political campaigning.

But for now, should someone declare Golden’s reelection ads “pretty darn good,” we’d probably rate such a claim as “mostly true.”

Golden, a freshman in a district Trump carried by 10 points, has ads this cycle that include a Bath Iron Works worker who doesn’t need to fake a Maine accent (it’s shocking how often that’s not the case in other political ads), another depicting Golden driving his pickup to D.C. in a nine-hour COVID commute, and another featuring his secret weapon: His wife Isobel.


Isobel appeared in an ad during Golden’s 2018 bid and at a time when the contest was quite bitter. The 2018 ad was effective because it blunted attacks depicting Golden as a “radical.” But it also provided an authentic message when some of the other messaging felt … out of order.

More disorder is assuredly on the way. The contest is rated as a toss-up by many national pundits and a top target for Republicans, who view it as a flippable seat. In that context, Isobel’s ad appearance serves as a relatable and preemptive defense against what’s about to come.

The week ahead

The state lawmakers will return to Augusta on Monday. Some of them, anyway.

The Maine Senate will convene for confirmation votes on Gov. Janet Mills’ nominations to the Maine Ethics Commission, the board overseeing the state’s campaign finance laws, as well as other boards. The 35 senators will gather in the House chamber in order to allow for more distancing, which might be a good thing considering that Democrats and Republicans have been sparring over a special session.

That's it for the first issue of the Pulse — click here to subscribe.

Originally published 9:14 a.m. August 21, 2020.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.