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Pulse Newsletter: Senate Candidates Get Serious At Maine Public's Debate

Republican Sen. Susan Collins defended her votes to confirm judges to the federal judiciary.

Democratic challenger and Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon pressed Collins on the future of the Affordable Care Act.

Independent Lisa Savage earnestly touted the benefits of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

And Max Linn shelved the theatrics he’s previously used to garner attention to portray himself as the only candidate who isn’t serving party masters.

That, in a nutshell, was the third debate of an increasingly high-profile, outrageously expensive U.S. Senate race that’s entering the home stretch.

For the two front-runners, Gideon and Collins, the event hosted by Maine Public at the largely vacant Augusta Civic Center was yet another chance to sharpen attacks that have been bulldozed by more than $100 million in spending so far.

Many of the exchanges between Collins and Gideon echoed the ad messages from the campaign. But with poll averages showing a very tight race, the two front-runners intensified their arguments.

That was especially true when the topic of the federal judiciary emerged, an issue particularly perilous for Collins, whose votes for President Donald Trump’s picks have become a focal point of the campaign in the wake of the death of Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Collins has said that she will not vote to confirm Trump’s choice to fill Ginsburg’s seat, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, if the confirmation vote takes place before the election. When asked whether she believes Barrett is a qualified choice, Collins said, “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 is fair to have a vote prior to the election.”

Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public
Maine Public
Susan Collins (left) and Sara Gideon at Maine Public's Senate debate on Thursday in Augusta.

Collins dismissed criticism that she’s taking that position because the Republican-controlled Senate doesn’t need her vote to confirm Barrett. She also ripped Gideon for “misleading” attacks claiming that she has voted for 181 far-right judges, arguing that more than 80 percent of those judges received support from Democrats.

“Those 181 judicial nominees that she chose to confirm, some of them were rated ‘unqualified’ by the American Bar Association and some of them came with distinct social and political agendas,” Gideon replied.

Gideon also attempted to use the uncertain fate of the Affordable Care Act as a way to appeal to the winnowing field of undecided voters by highlighting the Supreme Court case that could dismantle or scuttle the law. She blamed Collins for a GOP tax cut vote that stripped away a major provision of the ACA. While Collins noted that she voted against the repeal of the ACA that same year, Gideon made a broader argument that Collins and the GOP have no plan to replace the law if the court hobbles it.

“We need to know that no matter what happens to the Affordable Care Act, we have a Congress that is actually going to protect and expand people’s health care,” Gideon said. “[Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and Susan Collins have said there is no plan in place even as that lawsuit moves to oral arguments the week after Election Day.”

While the candidates addressed a variety of other issues — foreign policy, climate change, systemic racism — health care and the coronavirus were the predictable flashpoints that could end up playing a decisive role in the final outcome.

The next U.S. Senate debate is Thursday and hosted by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and News Center Maine. It begins at 7 p.m. and will take place at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland.

In the meantime, you can watch or rewatch Maine Public’s debate by clicking here.

$88.8 million

That number up there? That’s how much Gideon and Collins have raised during the entire U.S. Senate race.

Here’s some context, thanks to a big assist from Colby College professor of government Tony Corrado, who is also one of the leading campaign finance experts in the country: The $88.8 million raised so far puts the contest on pace to eclipse all the money raised by all Senate and House general election candidates in Maine combined since 2000.

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

Gideon raised $39 million in the third quarter of this year alone. That’s quadruple Collins’ haul of $8.3 million. And Collins’ third-quarter fundraising is nothing to sneer at. It’s actually about equal to what she raised during her entire 2008 re-election bid.

Both candidates’ third quarter fundraising total is more than the past seven general election campaigns combined.

All of that money is illustrative of how nationalized this contest has become; control of the U.S. Senate is on the line, so is the future of big issues like the federal judiciary, health care, the coronavirus pandemic and President Donald Trump. That’s why more than 90 percent of the money to Gideon and Collins is from out of state, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Meanwhile, groups operating independent of the candidate campaigns have spent more than $100 million trying to influence the contest in the flood of ads.

Independent Lisa Savage raised more than $82,000 in the third quarter while fellow independent Max Linn pulled in $475,000 with a personal loan to his campaign.

Legislative races heat up

Control of the Maine Legislature will be decided this election and groups spending to influence the contests have spent more than $1.1 million so far.

About 72 percent of all of that spending is going toward races that could determine whether Democrats can hold their majority in the state Senate.

Some of the most expensive races are open seats — that is, there’s no incumbent — but there are also a couple of surprises.

Take District 13, representing most of Lincoln County and a couple of adjacent towns. There Republican Senate leader Dana Dow is trying to fend off challenger Chloe Maxmin, a freshman in the House. More than $105,000 has been spent on the race, ranking it third overall in outside spending in state Senate contests so far. That’s as good a sign as any that it’s a tight race.

Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public
Maine Public
Max Linn at Maine Public's Senate debate on Thursday in Augusta.

The most expensive contest is for an open seat in District 34, which covers part of York County. So far, $143,000 has been spent and most of it has been by the Maine Democratic Party and aligned interest groups supporting Democrat Joseph Rafferty who is running against Republican Michael Pardue.

The second most targeted race is in District 20, covering part of Androscoggin County. There Democrats and aligned groups have pumped more than $124,000 to protect Sen. Ned Claxton. So far, no outside money has been spent supporting or opposing Republican Matthew Leonard, but that could change. The Republican State Leadership Committee, the national group supporting Republican legislative candidates across the country, has not yet engaged in Maine. The RSLC has been active here before, spending nearly $400,000 on GOP candidates in 2014 and 2016. Its Maine PAC from those election cycles is terminated, but it wouldn’t take long to set up a new one. The RSLC also just posted a $23 million haul in the most recent quarter, outraising its Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, by $12 million.

The fourth most targeted race is between Democratic Sen. Mike Carpenter and Republican Rep. Trey Stewart. Groups have spent more than $96,000 there.

District 11, covering Waldo County, rounds out the top five in outside spending at nearly $80,000 so far. Democrat Glenn Curry is taking on Duncan Milne.

There’s ample spending on the House races, but Democrats are in a decent position to hold the chamber in part because their candidates are running unopposed in 19 districts.

Better spent?

By now many voters are probably familiar with the Lincoln Project, the group of never-Trump Republicans producing blistering takedowns of the president and Republican members of Congress it deems insufficiently resistant to his conduct.

Critics of the president delight in watching the Lincoln Project’s ads, so much so that the group drew nearly $40 million in donations in the third quarter.

That’s the same amount of money donors have given Gideon to knock off Collins.

It’s also nearly 10 times the amount contributed to Maine legislative candidates in 2018 ($4.5 million), which is arguably a better investment in terms of shaping policy.

Nevertheless the temporary schadenfreude from watching a Republican group use its arsenal of dark arts against Trump is apparently a bigger incentive for Democratic donors.

* This post was updated at 2:20 p.m. on Oct. 17 to add that Collins will not vote to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett if the vote takes place before the election.

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