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Politics

Pulse Newsletter: What Will Gideon Do With Her Mountain Of Leftover Campaign Cash?

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On Nov. 3, the final day of voting, the campaign for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon sent an email to donors containing all the hallmarks of modern donation solicitations.

It was urgent and desperate.

“This is the very last email you will receive from us before the polls close in Maine,” the email said. “And we are asking you to rush one $3 final contribution now so we can keep our digital campaign alive.”

At that moment Gideon’s digital campaign was very much alive, and in reality, in zero danger of going dark. An ad placed via Google warned Maine voters that electing Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins would help Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. Another on Facebook featured Gideon thanking supporters.

Those ads were part of a $7.2 million digital campaign that Gideon’s team financed over the duration of her candidacy, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Gideon’s campaign ended with $14.8 million left over, enough to replicate its digital spending two times over. Nevertheless, thousands of individual donations came to her campaign on Nov. 3, some worth $1,000 and others just a few bucks.

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Credit Kris Bridges / For Maine Public
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For Maine Public
Sara Gideon at Maine Public's Your Vote Senate debate in October.

While last-minute appeals for donations — even ones feigning desperation — are common in political campaigns, the Nov. 3 push by Gideon’s team stands out because of the millions of dollars it was sitting on at the time and because of the cash her campaign committee is sitting on now.

Asked whether the solicitation was appropriate given the campaign’s surplus of cash, Gideon’s campaign spokeswoman Maeve Coyle said in a statement, “Elections are unpredictable and campaigns plan for a number of different outcomes and scenarios at any given point. That planning involves ensuring that the campaign has the resources it might need for any number of potential outcomes.”

The Gideon campaign’s $14.8 million in leftover cash is slightly more than the $14.4 million Collins and Democratic challenger Tom Allen combined to spend in the entire 2008 U.S. Senate race. Collins’ 2020 campaign dwarfed that total, spending $30.2 million and ending the contest with about $1.3 million. With $60.8 million spent, Gideon more than quadrupled that 2008 figure — ranking her sixth among all Senate candidates in the country — and still managed to end up with enough leftover cash to run a House campaign for roughly two or three election cycles in a competitive race — Maine U.S. Rep. Jared Golden spent $5.2 million defending his seat this year — and about 60 cycles in a liberal stronghold — Maine U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree spent a little more than $264,000 in a cakewalk contest.

And it’s not clear what Gideon intends to do with it. The day her campaign filed its postelection report, it announced that it was donating $350,000, or about 2% of its leftover cash, to two Maine charities. Beyond those donations neither Gideon nor her campaign are saying exactly what comes next.

“It was important to Sara to address some of the immediate needs Mainers are facing during this incredibly challenging time, and looking ahead she wants to be very thoughtful and deliberate in her decision making with the intention of finding the best way to effectively make lasting and positive change in people’s lives,” Coyle said. “She feels this is not something that can be done in a matter of weeks.”

Federal law does not allow Gideon to use leftover campaign funds for personal use. However, she could continue to dispense donations to charities, set up her own foundation, sit on the cash for a future run for federal office or even return it to donors.

Gideon could also make a direct $5,000 contribution to a political action committee, give unlimited amounts to a super PAC or convert her campaign committee to a PAC and spend to influence other federal races.

Some are calling for Gideon to do what she couldn’t: knock off a Republican incumbent and give Democrats a majority in the U.S. Senate.

Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are two Georgia Democrats running against Republican U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in Jan. 5 runoff contests that will determine which party controls the Senate.

Federal law allows Gideon to directly donate $2,000 to both candidates. She’s already done that, but she could do more through donations to a PAC or super-PAC, or by setting up her own.

With the Georgia runoff election just a few weeks away, time is running out for Gideon to set up a PAC that could influence the contest. Doing so may not suit her future political ambitions, if she has any.

If she does, then the former Maine House speaker could continue to donate to charities while leaving herself more than enough cash to jumpstart or completely finance a future run for the U.S. House.

More loss fallout

Gideon’s loss to Collins continues to generate discussion among Maine Democrats and progressive activists, with some calling for a reckoning for party leaders at the state and federal level.

Two articles published recently attempt to capture and explain some of the resentment, which centers on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s decision in June 2019 to effectively box out Gideon’s primary opponents by endorsing her shortly after she declared her candidacy.

The decision by the DSCC to intervene so early in the Democratic primary between Gideon, Betsy Sweet and Bre Kidman was immediately controversial. Primary interventions by party committees always are.

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Credit Campaign website photos
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Campaign website photos
Sara Gideon, Betsy Sweet and Bre Kidman

But now, after Gideon failed to defeat Collins despite spending $62 million, assisted by another $61 million in outside spending and an untold amount in dark money spending, the anger among some liberal activists is spilling into public view on social and traditional media.

A piece in the Portland-based Mainer magazine declared the DSCC’s intrusion the reason why Gideon lost the race, arguing that her campaign was hijacked by bumbling D.C. operatives who had little to no understanding of Maine politics and acted accordingly while lining the pockets of D.C.-friendly consulting, polling and fundraising firms.

Longtime Maine political observer and occasional participant Doug Rooks came to a related conclusion in a column published by the Times Record. Rooks argued that Gideon “had done nothing memorable” during her stint as Maine House speaker.

“Nevertheless, national funders had found their candidate, and pressed forward relentlessly, as Gideon outspent her nearest primary rival 31 to 1,” wrote Rooks, arguing that “no one has a chance against such a blitzkrieg.”

He added, “Maine Democrats now have a choice. They can insist on free and fair primaries, with national interests staying clear, or continue to have candidates anointed by Washington, regardless of their suitability to Maine’s electorate.”

Rooks’ point about competitive party primaries has been percolating in Democratic circles for years. Interventions by D.C. Democrats are not unique to Maine, but there are enough recent examples here of anointed Democratic candidates flaming out to keep the debate simmering.

But that debate among progressive activists might be for naught if it’s outweighed by the opinions of people with the wealth, influence and power within the Democratic Party machine. After all, the interventions by national party organizations and their allies would likely not be possible without the consent of big donors.

Special election date set

Gov. Janet Mills announced that a special election to fill a vacant state Senate seat in Kennebec County will be held March 9.

That seat — representing Chelsea, Farmingdale, Gardiner, Hallowell, Manchester, Monmouth, Pittston, Randolph, Readfield, West Gardiner and Winthrop — was won by former Sen. Shenna Bellows on Nov. 3. But shortly thereafter, Bellows ran and won the Legislature’s election to become the next secretary of state, leaving the seat vacant.

Recognized political party candidates and nonparty candidates have until Jan. 8 to submit nomination papers.

Former Democratic state Rep. Craig Hickman of Winthrop has announced his candidacy, as has former Republican state Sen. Earle McCormick and former Republican state Rep. William Guerrette Jr.

McCormick has held the seat four times before and also served in the Maine House twice. Hickman served four consecutive terms in the House until departing this year because of term limits. Guerette Jr. served one term in the House in the mid-90s.

Mills to get vaccinated when it’s her turn

Gov. Mills says she’s waiting for the green light from the Maine Center for Disease Control to get vaccinated for the coronavirus.

And she’s considering doing it publicly when it’s her turn.

According to a statement from her communications office, the governor has confidence in the recently approved vaccine developed by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech.

“She will receive a vaccine when the Maine CDC’s vaccine plan determines it is appropriate for her to do so pursuant to the US CDC guidelines,” her office said in an email. “Maine’s vaccine plan will continue to be updated and refined pending the approval of other COVID-19 vaccines, manufacturers’ supply capacity, logistical challenges, and Federal support for states’ vaccination efforts.”

Maine’s vaccine plan prioritizes older adults in the opening phase of its four-phase plan, but those recipients are behind frontline health care workers at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

Mills, who will turn 73 later this month, recently came out of quarantine after coming in close contact with a member of her security detail who tested positive for the disease. The governor tested negative for the disease, a result she attributed to the fact that she and the security officer were both wearing masks.

Many public officials, including governors, have announced plans to get vaccinated in public to promote public trust in the vaccine.

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