A little more than a year ago, Sara Gideon was someone known mostly in the insular political circles of the Maine Legislature. Today, the Democratic Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives is within striking distance of unseating Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
Gideon’s rise has been aided by a massive money and messaging campaign fueled by Collins’ controversial votes and anger at President Donald Trump, and she’s now trying to win over voters that Collins is in danger of losing.
On a late August campaign stop in Aroostook County, Gideon stood atop one of several rolling hills at a winery in Hodgdon to deliver what’s become her regular stump speech to about 50 people. She told attendees about her dealings with former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican known for his divisive governing style.
“I sometimes think back on it and think, ‘This was a person who didn’t want government to work, but maybe more importantly, just didn’t want people to work together. And I think that’s what we see happening on the national level now,” Gideon says.
Gideon attempted to draw a parallel between LePage and President Donald Trump, and more specifically, to link the president to the woman she’s trying to unseat.
Afterward, Linneus resident John Clark was asked what he thought of Gideon’s speech. He responded by talking about Collins.
“She knows I’m not voting for her. I’ve communicated with her. I’m disgusted. And it has to change,” he says.
At a glance, Clark appears to personify the reason polls show Gideon either ahead or in a dead heat with Collins, a 24-year incumbent whose approval rating was once among the highest of U.S. senators. He says he’s supported Collins every time he’s had the chance. But not this year.
“She’s tried to walk this line between what’s right and still go along with Trump,” he says. “Trump isn’t a Republican, he’s a Trump.”
“People say to us, assertively, ‘I voted for Susan Collins two times, or three times, or four times.’ People always know exactly how many times and which years they voted for her, and they’ll say, ‘We can’t do it again. We need a change,’” Gideon says.
A desire for change has undoubtedly fueled Gideon’s rise from a relatively unknown political figure to the woman poised to topple an icon in Maine politics. It’s the reason Gideon and the massive spending effort buoying her candidacy have relentlessly tried to portray Collins as a once venerable figure corrupted by Washington and cowed by a pugilistic president.
But to close the deal on Nov. 3, Gideon is attempting to woo voters’ desire for cooperation, pragmatism and independence — traits also claimed by her rival.
“I’ve learned that if you’re willing to work with others, it’s still possible to get things done,” Gideon says in one of her campaign ads.
Gideon’s ads weave a narrative of a mother of three who felt compelled to get into public service, first with the Freeport Town Council, then the Legislature and now the U.S. Senate.
But there’s more to it.
Gideon’s father was born in India and came to the country at age 24 to later become a pediatrician. Her mother was born in the United States after her grandparents fled the mass murder and exiling of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman government.
“So that’s really a big part of who I am and also how I see the world around me,” she says.
Gideon was raised in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, which has a median income of nearly $100,000 and is the wealthiest municipality in the state.
She describes her childhood as uneventful but blessed.
“I look back on my childhood and I think in some ways it was just a very typical suburban childhood,” she says.
Republicans frame Gideon as a person of privilege now trying to knock off Collins, an Aroostook County native with Maine roots that go back generations. And Collins herself recently described Gideon as a carpetbagger.
“Sara’s been here what, 15 years? And she simply does not have the depth of knowledge and understanding of Maine people,” Collins said.
Gideon’s husband, Ben, is an attorney from Maine who worked on former Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Allen’s first gubernatorial and congressional campaigns.
Allen, of course, would challenge Collins in 2008 and lose in a landslide.
The couple met in the nation’s capital — Sara was studying international affairs at George Washington University, Ben was working for a law firm — and they moved to Freeport in 2004.
She ran for the Freeport Town Council five years later after someone originally tried to recruit her husband.
“I think people saw me out … with a double-stroller every day,” she says.
Gideon was first elected to the Legislature in 2012 and quickly gained a reputation as a business-friendly Democrat.
She’s sworn off corporate political action committee donations during her Senate campaign, but her legislative PAC accepted them — often the first step in a legislator’s rise to a leadership position.
Gideon became speaker of the Maine House in 2017 and her campaign often uses her experience as evidence of her problem-solving. That image comports with Gideon’s efforts to shepherd a bill that expanded access to the overdose revival drug Narcan over the objections of Gov. Paul LePage.
But by Gideon’s own admission, her time as House speaker has had its challenges.
“I have to say, I can barely contain my fury,” Gideon said during a meeting with lawmakers during the 2017 state government shutdown, when she and other lawmakers were attempting break a budget impasse that resulted in the first state government shutdown in more than two decades.
Gideon had attempted to broker a budget deal with the Republican-controlled Senate, but was thwarted by LePage and House Republicans.
A year later, she was tested again when rumors swirled that a Democratic House member engaged in inappropriate behavior with several female students at the former Maine Girls Academy in Portland. Gideon called for the lawmaker’s resignation after an unnamed individual made the allegations public in a news report.
Gideon told the Maine Public call-in show Maine Calling on Thursday that she acted once an alleged victim came forward.
“We needed to see and hear from someone and when we did — as soon as we did — I immediately asked for his resignation,” she said.
The lawmaker has never been charged with a crime, but national Republican groups boosting Collins’ reelection continue to accuse Gideon of a cover-up in ads that have been running since June.
It’s unclear whether those ads are having the intended effect. But polls show the race is increasingly shaped by women voters who helped Collins win her seat 24 years ago, but who appear to be leaving her or at least considering it.
Meanwhile, Democrats are playing up arguments that have allowed Gideon to pull ahead or even with the Republican who appeared almost invincible just three years ago.
“We also need real leadership. And I think that is why people keep asking Sen. Collins who she thinks should be leading this country. 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,” Gideon said, pressing Collins during the first debate of the race.
Collins ignored her, but the issue of Trump and her votes for conservative judges with anti-abortion stances continue to shadow her bid for a fifth term.
Polls have shown a very tight race. But even back in August, Gideon channeled voters who tell her it’s time for a change.
“You know, I don’t think everybody who says that to me is everybody in Maine,” she says. “But I feel certain about what we need to do.”