Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic challenger Sara Gideon exchanged barbs Friday over health care, judicial appointments and President Donald Trump in the first debate of a race that could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate next year.
The four-way contest largely followed the contours of the $60 million in increasingly negative ads that have been spent on the race since June of 2019 — already the most spent on a campaign in Maine’s 200-year history. Independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn have spent a fraction of that money and are considered longshots, but both could affect the outcome of a contest that will be decided by a ranked-choice voting runoff if no candidate receives an outright majority on election night.
For Collins, the hour-long debate at the Holiday Inn by the Bay, and broadcast by Newscenter Maine, was a chance to reassert moderate bona fides that once made her one of the most popular elected officials in Maine. But her 26-year-old reputation as a centrist has withered amid votes taken during the presidency of Donald Trump and amid the view among some voters that she’s done little to hold the president accountable for his norm-busting conduct.
For Gideon, currently the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, the debate was an opportunity to push Collins on the same issues that have led to the Republican’s decline in popularity, including the 2017 Republican tax law that has given rise to a lawsuit that could wipe out the Affordable Care Act, judicial appointments and the standard bearer of the Republican party — Trump.
Collins in 2016 declared Trump unfit for office, but she has not said whether she supports him this year — a position that has prompted Democrats, including Gideon, to assert that the Republican Senator is not being straight with Mainers.
Gideon attempted to get an answer when she asked Collins who she will support in the presidential election:
“I don’t think that the people of Maine need my advice on whom to support for president,” Collins responded. “Last week I was on a bus tour all over the state of Maine. Not a single person asked me who should be the next president. What they did say was how grateful they were for the Paycheck Protection Program that I wrote because it preserved their job or their small business.”
Gideon later raised the issue again, saying, “It’s not that Mainers are looking for advice about who to vote for. It’s that they want to know who their senator thinks should be leading us.”
The exchange was one of several about Trump, whose impact on down-ballot contests has Democrats hopeful for a sweep of the presidency, and Congress and Republicans playing defense in key Senate races, including Maine.
Collins has attempted to localize her bid for a fifth term, citing her ability to deliver federal funding to Maine and for helping draft the Paycheck Protection Program, which has provided forgivable loans to businesses during the pandemic.
But Collins’ attempts to decouple her electoral fortunes from Trump’s encountered another hurdle this week when recordings of the President talking about the coronavirus pandemic were published alongside the new book Rage by award-winning journalist Bob Woodward. Trump told Woodward that he purposely downplayed the threat of the pandemic, despite knowing in February of its threat to Americans.
Early in the debate, Newscenter Maine moderator Pat Callaghan asked Collins whether the president failed to protect Americans by downplaying the pandemic.
Collins, reiterating comments she made to Maine Public Radio Thursday, called the President’s pandemic response “uneven,” and said that he should have been upfront with Americans about the coronavirus threat.
“The American people can take hard facts, and he had an obligation as president to be straightforward with them and to tell them all that he has known,” Collins said.
Attention to the race has focused almost exclusively on Collins and Gideon, who have raised more than $40 million for their campaigns. Outside groups have spent an additional $36 million, leading both candidates to criticize each other for dubious and personal attacks.
Savage, a resident of Solon, and Linn, of Bar Harbor, have spent a fraction of that money. Both are running as independents, although Savage is registered as a Green Independent. Her campaign highlights her support for the Green New Deal, racial justice and Medicare for all.
Linn’s bid is unorthodox, which was illustrated several times during the debate when he refused to answer the moderators’ questions:
“A lot of times when our moderators ask me a question, I might put that question aside,” Linn explained. “I might put that question aside because I know that I have to slay these giants, and it’s not going to be easy. So, I am going to have to be outside the box.”
Linn attempted to challenge independent U.S. Sen. Angus King in 2018 but failed to qualify for the ballot because of a slew of irregularities by petition circulators he hired. While he has previously billed himself as stridently pro-Trump, on Friday he criticized Collins’ vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Collins’ vote prompted abortion rights groups like Planned Parenthood to abandon their support for her. Other abortion rights groups are now spending to defeat her and backing Gideon.
Collins defended her judicial votes during the debate, saying she has applied the same standard and vetting process under Democratic and Republican presidents.
At one point she tried to stymie Gideon by asking her if she would have voted for Chief Justice John Roberts, who has emerged as something of a swing vote on a court with a conservative majority. Gideon responded by saying that she needed to study the issue further.
“She’s ducking the question,” Collins replied.
Exchanges between Gideon and Collins illustrate the competitiveness of the race. While Collins has won her previous re-election bids in a landslide — even in Democratic wave elections — polls show that she is in the fight of her political career.
Several polls show Gideon with a slight lead, which is reflected in the ferocity of Republicans’ attacks on a Democrat who has never run for statewide office or faced a difficult challenge in her Democratic-dominated state House district. Republicans have attempted to portray Gideon as a hypocrite and a tool of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who could become the leader of the Senate if Democrats can take control of the chamber in November.
Democrats and aligned interest groups have been equally fierce, painting Collins as a once independent Senator corrupted by congressional politics and cowed by Trump.
Friday’s debate, sponsored by Newscenter Maine, the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News, is the first of several that will occur this fall.
Maine Public will hold its U.S. Senate debate on October 15, 2020.
Originally published at 10:35 p.m. Sept. 11, 2020.