Maine Civil Rights Advocate Expected to Seek Collins' Senate Seat

Sep 13, 2013

An outspoken civil rights advocate is reportedly within days of announcing her decision to challenge Republican Sen. Susan Collins next year. Shenna Bellows, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, will seek the Democratic nomination to become Maine's next U.S. senator, according to well-placed State House sources. Bellows faces an uphill battle against the three-term Collins, who won her last election with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Normally accessible to reporters, Shenna Bellows was hard to find Friday as she continued to dodge interview requests about her future plans. Reliable political sources confirm that she has decided to seek the Democratic nomination and take a leave of absence from her duties as the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

As Bellows confronts what is expected to be a formidable reelection bid from GOP incumbent Sen. Susan Susan Collins, University of Maine Political Science Professor Mark Brewer says the two campaigns will present a study in contrasts.

"What this would seem to me to be is an example of an up-and-coming voice in public life who is interested in taking the next step in public office," Brewer says.

Bellows is well known around the State House, where she has been an active civil rights advocate for the last eight years for the ACLU. Brewer says the level of comfort Bellows has working with lawmakers will serve her well as she puts together a statewide organization with key Democrats to challenge Collins.

"One thing that you have to do in order to do that is to build name recognition and build a track record and a reputation and introduce yourself to the electorate," Brewer says, "and to me, this would seem to be a perfect example of someone doing that."

A native of Hancock, Bellows has been active in several statewide campaigns, including the effort to legalize same-sex marriage and to oppose state voter ID requirements. And at 38, she's had early success in both. She has also earned the support of some libertarian-leaning Republicans who support her stands against the Patriot Act -- a measure that broadened government surveillance powers and was staunchly defended by Collins.

University of Maine Farmington Political Science Professor Jim Melcher says that measure of support could shift to Bellows favor should Collins defeat a libertarian GOP primary opponent.

"If you had a Republican primary against Susan Collins, you might have some people who are unhappy with her and think that she's not libertarian enough, and want somebody like Ron Paul or a Rand Paul in there," Melcher says. "That might sort of set things up where, if people are angry, they might have some place to go."

Cynthia Dill is an attorney and former state lawmaker who was the last Democratic woman to seek a U.S. Senate seat. She lost to independent Sen. Angus King in 2012. But she says next year's race against Collins will be different for Democrats, who have frequently tried to tie Republican candidates to Gov. Paul LePage.

"I think that in this case, in 2014, Sen. Collins - it's going to be very difficult to pin her with Gov. LePage," says Dill. "On national issues she really is perceived as a moderate when it comes to gun control, choice, war, the environment, so that's going to clearly be a difference. And there's no independent to contend with. But the bottom line is that it's going to be very difficult, it's going to be very rewarding and it's going to be very expensive."

Rick Bennett, state Republican chairman, says he doesn't know Bellows well. But he also says the fact that the election is a year away, and that Bellows is the first name to be mentioned as an opponent for Collins, speaks to the level of support the Republican is perceived to have in Maine.

"There are very few other people who are out there that I think would consider it seriously, because I think the understanding that most Maine people have is that Sen. Collins deserves reelection," Bennett says. "She works hard and she's earned the popularity that she has."

A total of $11 million was spent by Democratic candidate Tom Allen and Collins during her 2008 reelection campaign.