The first debate of the Maine U.S. Senate race is over. And somehow a race that kicked off more than a year ago has finally just begun.
That’s because it finally felt normal.
As it has with nearly everything, the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally altered a race that could determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the U.S. Senate next year.
More than $60 million has been spent on ads, the most on any Maine race in the state’s 200-year old history. Yet gathering restrictions have made the race — and the candidates — feel distant. Retail campaigning has been infrequent or tightly controlled. Stump speeches have been largely confined to 30-second or 60-second missives on social media. Most of the candidate statements are prepared, rehearsed or read in the candidates' kitchens, cars or backyards.
There are no rallies.
Only President Donald Trump, who loomed over the debate stage despite his absence, has rallies.
Against that backdrop, Friday’s debate at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland brought a new sense of reality and consequence. It was fast paced and at times chaotic, and the talking points largely mimicked points made in the deluge of ads. But for voters tuning in, it was a chance to see the candidates manage their messages under questioning, from moderators and each other.
The incumbent, Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, met her challengers in-person for the first time, and at a moment when her 30-year-old political career is facing a massive challenge. Her leading rival Sara Gideon, the Maine Speaker of the House, has scant experience with tough elections and has never run for statewide office. Yet polls show Gideon with either a slight lead or tied with Collins, who just three years ago appeared indestructible and contemplated leaving the Senate to run for governor.
Going into the race, some framed the debate as a big test for the less experienced Gideon. Collins, after all, has command of the issues and knows how to throw a sharp elbow (see below).
But save for one stumble at the end of the debate, Gideon came off as prepared, and she didn’t shy from challenging Collins on a key question of the election: will Collins support Trump?
Collins declined to answer, telling Gideon, “I don’t think that the people of Maine need my advice on whom to support for president. 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.”
That seemed to be the end of it, but Gideon circled back in the second half-hour.
“It’s not that Mainers are looking for advice about who to vote for,” she said. “It’s that they want to know who their senator thinks should be leading us.”
It’s not yet clear how important Collins’ answer is to voters. A poll released this week by AARP suggests it’s not as critical as Democrats would hope. Former Vice President Joe Biden has a commanding lead over Trump statewide, but the same survey suggests Collins is outperforming the president, even though the race with Gideon is a virtual dead heat.
That’s why Collins is trying to localize the race, highlighting her efforts in securing federal funding and a Paycheck Protection Program that has provided forgivable loans to businesses during the pandemic.
Of course, the contest is not just Collins and Gideon.
Few political observers give independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn much of a chance, but their presence could be a key factor in a contest that will be decided by a ranked-choice voting runoff if neither Collins nor Gideon can win an outright majority on election night.
Savage could draw votes from Gideon’s left flank, especially since the House Speaker, like Biden, is essentially running as a moderate Democrat. But Savage is also highlighting the benefits of ranked-choice voting, a position that could lead her supporters to rank Gideon second.
As for Linn, it’s hard to know what his impact on the race will be. He has been billed as a pro-Trump loyalist, a position that would seemingly make him a threat to Collins. But Linn barely mentioned the president during the debate. At several points he refused to answer debate moderators’ questions, telling them, “A lot of times when our moderators ask me a question, I might put that question aside. 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.”
When moderators tried to press him, Linn repeatedly responded, “request denied.”
Linn’s response was widely mocked on social media, but he embraced it.
Linn’s performance was the most unorthodox performance of a mostly orthodox debate — and a perfect reminder of how far from normal everything currently is.
From the vault
Collins’ sharp attacks on Gideon during Friday’s debate shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has followed a political career that spans three decades. Collins has long demonstrated a willingness to throw elbows.
In 1994, Collins was one of four candidates vying for governor. She finished third in that contest, losing to independent Angus King, who won with a razor-thin margin, and Democrat Joseph Brennan, who finished second.
In an extensive interview with Maine Public Radio before the election, Collins was asked specifically about King, who was eyeing the coveted center lane. That also happened to be Collins’ preferred lane. When asked to describe the differences between her and King, she rattled off a two-minute answer that hit King on everything from his business acumen to what she described as his naked political ambition.
“One big difference is that I'm a Republican, and I've always been a Republican, whereas Angus was a Democrat up to just a few weeks before he filed for governor,” Collins said. “It's evident to me that Angus knew he couldn't beat Joe Brennan in a primary and that he ducked the primary. It really was political expediency rather than a conversion of his views.”
She wasn’t done.
“It's been interesting listening to Angus and following him around the state — and having him follow me,” she said. “What I found is that he tends to say one thing when he's in Camden, a conservative area, and that he says something entirely different when he's campaigning in Biddeford or Portland, an area which is much more Democratic. I've urged voters to look at Angus King and to ask, ‘will the real Angus King please stand up?’ ”
Collins then targeted King’s energy business.
“Now all of a sudden he's portraying himself as a conservative businessman,” Collins said. “It's interesting as I hear Angus talk about his business experience. He, as far as I can tell, never had more than three employees. And it's not as if today you can point to a factory employing some 200 people as a result of some entrepreneurial risk that Angus took. In fact, it's really Joe Brennan's energy policies that made Angus a rich man and the rest of us ratepayers a lot poorer.”
In 1994, King and Collins were considered upstarts with promising careers that seemed destined to meet. King was once an aide to U.S. Sen. William Hathaway, the Democrat who in 1972 defeated Margaret Chase Smith, a politician who Collins has cited as an inspiration for her own political career.
Twenty years later, King endorsed Collins’ reelection bid at the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, calling her a “model Senator.”
King has said that he’s staying out of this year’s senate race.
Despite the ongoing legal battle over whether Maine will use ranked-choice voting in this year’s presidential election, the election overhaul that Maine voters adopted in 2016 has inspired other states to consider giving it a try.
Currently, Maine is the only state that uses the system in congressional primary and general election contests, as well as primary contests for governor. But 2020 could bring a small expansion of the election system.
If approved by Massachusetts voters, Question 2 implements RCV in primary and general elections for all statewide offices such as governor, as well as legislative offices and congressional contests. Implementation would begin in 2022, barring legal challenges or other delays.
Alaska’s consideration of RCV is sandwiched into a more sweeping election reform initiative known as Ballot Measure 2. Not only would the initiative install RCV for general elections, including the presidential election, it also replaces partisan primary contests with a variation of the top-two open primary system used by California and Washington. If Alaska voters pass Ballot Measure 2, the state will use a top-four open primary system in which the top four vote-getters advance to the general election — an RCV election — regardless of party affiliation.