Pulse Newsletter: Maine's Senate Race Is In Its Final Weekend — And Voters Seem Unswayed By Spending

Oct 30, 2020

There has been nearly $100 spent for each of Maine’s 1.4 million residents in the U.S. Senate race.

The blizzard of ads is so thick that it’s not uncommon to see five or six back to back on television.

According to the Wesleyan Media Project, the majority of the ads have been negative. And yet, with just a few days left before voting ends, there have been no knockout blows and neither Republican Sen. Susan Collins nor Democratic challenger Sara Gideon appear to be pulling away in the polls.

The race has been remarkably steady. Now, with just a few days left before voting ends, it’s a statistical dead heat, according to this week’s survey from Colby College.

It was fitting, then, that the final debate of the Maine U.S. Senate race, hosted by WMTW on Thursday, largely mirrored the debates that preceded it. Optically and substantively the major difference was that independent candidates Lisa Savage and Max Linn were excluded, leading them to file a joint complaint with the Federal Election Commission and prompting their supporters to stage a protest outside of WMTW’s studios in Westbrook.

Lisa Savage at Maine Public's U.S. Senate debate recently.
Credit Kris Bridges / For Maine Public

WMTW made an editorial decision to invite only Gideon and Collins and it set up the possibility of an hourlong slugfest that might help undecided voters make up their minds.

Maybe it will.

Collins and Gideon were aggressive and sharp from the beginning. However, many of the arguments were well-worn after more than a yearlong campaign.

Collins has attempted to frame Gideon as a risk for Mainers, a neophyte parroting talking points from her “mentor,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. (Gideon said Thursday that she barely knows Schumer.)

Conversely, Gideon has repeatedly attempted to handcuff Collins to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump. Her arguments boil down to this: A vote for Collins is a vote for both Trump and McConnell.

The Democrat tried to weave this narrative into many of the debate topics:

— What should the next pandemic-relief bill include? After listing off funding priorities Gideon made sure to blame McConnell and Trump for the failure to pass a new bill before Nov. 3.

— Mask mandates? Gideon ripped the president for politicizing masks.

— Should a Democratic-controlled Congress expand the Supreme Court — often referred to as packing the court by Republicans — to respond to Republicans filling the federal judiciary with conservative judges after previously blocking President Barack Obama’s court picks?

“Sen. Collins, you have packed the courts,” Gideon said. “You have packed the court. You have hand-delivered Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell’s judiciary agenda and an ideological court to the American people.”

“This is the new Democratic talking point,” Collins responded.

Collins, who declared Trump unfit for the presidency in 2016, again declined to comment on the presidential race even when WMTW debate moderator Steve Bottari tried a novel approach to extract an answer.

“Do you not care if your party wins the White House?” Bottari asked.

“What I don’t want to see is one-party control in Washington, because I think that would lead to a far-left agenda being pushed through Congress, including packing the courts, and I think that would be a disaster,” Collins said.

It was an interesting response. Was Collins signaling to the ticket-splitters who believe former Vice President Joe Biden is a lock to knock off Trump, but who are fearful of one-party control? It’s hard to know for certain, but it’s an argument that might resonate with some Maine voters, who are famous for ticket-splitting.

The question is whether there are many ticket-splitters out there anymore. Just last week, the Pew Research Center released survey results in the 35 states with Senate races showing that the largest share of voters say they plan to vote for both Biden and the Democratic Senate candidate (42 percent) or Trump and the Republican Senate candidate (38 percent). Just 7 percent said they plan to split their ticket.

The Pew findings are totals from the 35 states with Senate races, not specific to Maine, which may or may not have a larger number of ticket-splitters than other states.

Still, in a race this close, even a small percentage of ticket-splitters could make a difference. That goes for the two independents, Savage and Linn, who were excluded from the debate in part because WMTW found neither candidate polling high enough to have a chance to win.

Nevertheless, with a race this tight and the possibility that neither Collins nor Gideon can obtain an outright majority on Tuesday, the prospect of a ranked-choice voting runoff looms.

That means voters who ranked Savage and Linn first could ultimately decide whether Gideon or Collins wins.

Quick hits

Nativist leanings quantified: The Colby College survey released this week asked respondents if they would be more willing to support a candidate who was born in Maine, or a candidate who is able to draw on perspective from other parts of the country. Sixty-three percent said they’d prefer someone born in Maine, 37 percent said “bring ideas from other parts of the country.”

An unprecedented warning from the International Crisis Group, an international organization working to prevent violence and conflict: “At some level, it should not be surprising that the United States now faces the spectre of electoral violence. The U.S. has seen slavery, civil war, lynching, labour strife and the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples. The wounds of those legacies have never fully healed. The country is awash in firearms, has gun homicide levels unmatched by any other high-income country, and is home to a white supremacy movement that … is growing in virulence. Racial injustice, economic inequality and police brutality are chronic sources of tension, which periodically bubbles over into large-scale peaceful demonstrations and, sometimes, civil unrest.”

Absentee balloting update from the Maine Secretary of State as of Thursday: More than 500,000 absentee ballots have been issued, 55,000 of which have not yet been returned. State election officials are advising people with unreturned ballots to return them to their local clerk as soon as possible. Don’t mail them.

Ad count: There have been 167,653 television ads for congressional and presidential contests in Maine’s three media markets, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. That’s more than the 145,634 ads that have run in the Phoenix, Ariz., media market. According to Nielsen, there are 482,880 households with televisions in Maine’s three markets. In the Phoenix market? 1.9 million homes have televisions, making it the 11th largest television market in the country.

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