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WATCH: Senate Candidates Spar On Health Care, Pandemic Aid In Maine Public’s Debate

Nick Woodward
Maine Public

With less than a month until the election, the four candidates in the race for Maine’s U.S. Senate seat sharply diverged on health care, economic assistance during the pandemic, the Supreme Court confirmation process and other topics during a live debate aired on Maine Public Thursday night from the Augusta Civic Center.

Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon said she was proud of the leadership shown by state political leaders in keeping Maine’s rate of COVID infections the 2nd lowest in the nation. And she challenged Republican Sen. Susan Collins to demonstrate her leadership by declaring whether she supports the reelection of President Donald Trump.

“Senator Collins, who has her ballot in hand, has still not told us who she thinks should be leading,” Gideon said. “This matters because it is about what you think of leadership in this country, Senator Collins. It is not about people needing your advice. It is about who you are and what you think of what’s happening in this country.”

“Leadership is what I’ve shown in dealing with this pandemic,” Collins said in response. “I came up with the concept of the Paycheck Protection Program. It is the most successful part of our response to the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus. I don’t know how Sara can stand there and claim credit for Maine having one of the lowest rates of COVID infections in the country. I’m very happy about that, but the fact is she hasn’t been at work for six months. And her only discussion with the Republican leader in the House was just once during that six months and it was less than a minute.”

Collins never answered the question about her support for President Trump, and Gideon accused her of deflecting from the lack of progress the U.S. Senate has made in addressing the pandemic by turning her attention to the Maine Legislature.

The candidates also shared widely different views on the Supreme Court confirmation process and the current nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

Independent Max Linn is the only candidate who said he supports the conservative federal appeals judge. He said he would also have supported Merrick Garland, who was nominated to fill a Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia in 2016 during the Obama administration.

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Maine Public
Max Linn in Maine Public's Senate debate Thursday night in Augusta.

“I would have supported Obama’s nomination for Supreme Court. I think it’s the president’s job and the Constitution’s to do that,” he said.

Barrett is expected to be confirmed before the November election. But going forward, independent Lisa Savage said she favors imposing term limits for Supreme Court justices instead of lifetime appointments.

“When the rules were put in place for them to be lifetime appointments, the average life expectancy of an American was 39 years old. We’re now up to 79 years old. I think that a reasonable length of term limit would be 18 years,” she said.

Savage said she rejects the notion that term limits would further politicize the process since judicial nominees would still outlast the time a president could spend in office.

Gideon has other ideas about how to make the Supreme Court confirmation process less political and the judiciary more independent.

Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public
Maine Public
Lisa Savage in Maine Public's Senate debate Thursday night in Augusta.

“No. 1, I think we should make sure that we have a Senate that is focused on making progress for people. No. 2, I think we should go back to having a filibuster in place for judicial nominees,” she said.

Gideon said President Trump has had a concerted and successful effort to move the judiciary to the right with the help of Collins, who voted to confirm 181 judicial nominees, even though some were rated “unqualified” by the American Bar Association.

For her part, Collins said 84 percent of those judges had bipartisan support. Collins declined to say whether she thinks Judge Barrett is qualified for the job.

“I have not approached the merits of Judge Barrett at this point. What I have concentrated on is being fair and I don’t think it’s fair to have a vote prior to the election,” she said.

Four years ago, Collins said she thought there was enough time to take up the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland before the election but she did not prevail, and she says precedent was established at that time.