Pulse Newsletter: Mike Pence Rallies In Maine, Sans Our Lone Republican Senator

Oct 23, 2020

Vice President Mike Pence used a quick trip to Hermon on Monday to reiterate the president’s central reelection argument that Democratic challenger Joe Biden is a “Trojan horse” for the “radical left” who will drive the American economy into a depression.

But Pence’s speech to roughly 1,500 mostly maskless attendees was more notable because it was remarkably fine-tuned for President Donald Trump’s base and for how it illustrated the peculiar dynamics of the U.S. Senate race.

While Pence’s economic message could appeal to a broad cross-section of voters, he received the most robust applause when discussing Trump’s opposition to abortion and his administration’s role in cramming the federal judiciary with like-minded judges.

“We’ve appointed more than 200 conservative judges to our federal courts at every level,” Pence said. “They are all men and women who will uphold the God-given liberties enshrined in our Constitution like the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech and the 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms.”

Mike Pence at a rally in Maine on Monday.
Credit Murray Carpenter / For Maine Public

Pence’s framing that Trump has delivered conservative hardliners the goods on the federal judiciary came against the backdrop of the U.S. Senate race in which Republican Sen. Susan Collins is on the defensive for her votes to confirm many of those same judges. During Maine Public’s recent debate, Collins ripped Democratic challenger Sara Gideon for describing the Trump picks as “far-right conservative judges,” which is similar to Pence’s enthusiastic characterization on Monday (Collins also noted during the debate that more than 80 percent of the judges received Democratic support of some kind).

Collins is trying to win re-election in a state where the president is unpopular, although less so in the 2nd Congressional District, which overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016. She won’t say whether she supports Trump’s bid for a second term, a position often viewed as an effort to salvage what’s left of the center-left coalition that’s long buoyed her political career.

That’s why news stories made note of Collins’ absence at the Pence rally and that the vice president never mentioned her. Those same stories also noted that Trump was angry with Collins because she’s said she will not vote for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett if the confirmation vote takes place before the election (screenshot or embed: ).

It’s not clear whether Pence’s nonmention was meant to assist Collins’ distancing efforts or simply retaliation for her position on Barrett’s confirmation. Either way, Collins’ tiptoeing on the subject of Trump has been overshadowed by attempts by a few local conservative hardliners to gin up support for her.

Among them is former Gov. Paul LePage, a Collins critic turned quasi-surrogate who cited the importance of her reelection while warming up the crowd for the vice president on Monday.

“We need Sen. Collins back in Washington. I’ve had so many folks tell me ‘Oh it’s over for her,’” said LePage, who is Trump’s honorary campaign chairman in Maine. “It’s not over for her. We need the Senate to help President Trump run the country.”

LePage’s remarks quickly became fodder for Democrats, who asserted that his comments were further evidence that a vote for Collins is a vote for Trump.

There was a similar reaction from the LGBTQ rights group EqualityMaine when the Christian Civic League of Maine endorsed Collins during a Zoom call last week.

“Our endorsement of Sen. Collins is not a casual endorsement,” said CCLM executive director Carroll Conley. “We know what’s at stake. And for individuals in the state where the life issue and the religious liberty issue and other issues central to our faith and conservative values, we want you to know that our endorsement of Sen. Susan Collins is an enthusiastic endorsement.”

The Christian Civic League is stridently pro-life and groups like EqualityMaine have long viewed the organization as overtly hostile to rights for LGBTQ people. Collins has described herself as pro-choice and in 2017 Planned Parenthood honored her as “an outspoken champion for women’s health.” But Planned Parenthood endorsed Democratic challenger Sara Gideon this year. The same goes for LGBTQ groups that previously considered Collins as an ally.

Collins and her campaign have not publicly touted the Christian Civic League endorsement. The senator has said that her views on LGBTQ issues and abortion have not changed and that the loss of endorsements from aligned advocacy groups is because of partisan politics.

The Christian Civic League endorsement could be viewed similarly, and it’s consistent with LePage and others’ efforts to consolidate conservative support for Collins at a time when she desperately needs it.

Nevertheless, it’s being used by liberal groups as evidence that Collins has changed and stirring speculation about how she’ll vote if she is able to secure a fifth term.

Lost parents, lost children

Immigration policy has not been widely discussed during the 2020 election, but it continues to be top of mind for 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat in a strong position to be elected to her seventh term.

In 2018, Pingree and other Democratic House members traveled to the southern U.S. border to tour detention facilities that were housing migrant children who had been separated from their parents by the Trump administration as part of its zero-tolerance policy.

Pingree appeared shaken by the experience. In a video posted by her campaign office at the time, she described the scene inside the facility as “unconscionable.”

“Frankly every member of Congress (at the facility) was in tears. People were hugging … it was — it just didn’t feel like we were in the United States of America. It was unthinkable,” she said.

Pingree also worried about reunification and warned that the U.S. government didn’t have a plan.

It appears that she was right to be worried.

In 2018, a federal judge halted the child separation policy and ordered that all the children be reunited with their parents. But 545 children separated from their parents in a separate 2017 pilot program cannot be found, according to court-appointed lawyers charged with reuniting the children with their parents.

White House spokesperson Brian Morgenstern told NBC News that many of the parents “have declined to accept their children back … It’s not for lack of effort on the administration’s part.”

But an attorney for the ACLU says the administration would not know if the parents want their kids back.

That’s because the parents can’t be found.

Policing partisan and fake news

Last week the New York Times published a yearlong investigation into the proliferation of partisan propaganda websites posing as traditional news outlets.

The story was particularly relevant in Maine because it led with a local example of a pay-to-play scheme involving a freelance reporter from New York who was paid by a Republican operative to write a hit-piece on Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon.

The piece appeared in what’s called Maine Business Daily, which is part of a network of roughly 1,300 websites that operate nationwide with a similar partisan goal: To add the veneer of journalistic objectivity and legitimacy to party propaganda. The articles are also used as source material in political ads where the goal is to validate a partisan talking point or attack.

The NYT piece created a stir because it was framed as a warning about the disappearance of local news and the partisan interests attempting to fill the void.

But partisan or ideological websites posing as news is not new in Maine.

Recent examples include the Maine Examiner and the Maine Beacon. Neither site is known to have engaged in a pay-to-play scheme like Maine Business Daily. But both have a partisan or ideological agenda.

The Maine Examiner is run by Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party. The Examiner made headlines in 2017 and 2018 for a slate of stories designed to influence the Lewiston mayoral race. It has since trained its crosshairs on Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and various Democratic candidates running for the legislature and Congress.

The site’s stories have no bylines stating who wrote them. In fact, Savage’s involvement wasn’t confirmed until metadata containing his name was discovered on photos appearing on the website. He eventually acknowledged that he ran the Examiner after the Maine Democratic Party filed a complaint against the website alleging that it was effectively operating as an extension of the Maine Republican Party and violating campaign finance laws. (The Maine Ethics Commission declined to investigate the complaint.)

The “about us” section of The Examiner now discloses Savage as the owner, although the stories still do not say who wrote them.

That’s not the case with the Maine Beacon, which is part of the progressive activist group the Maine People’s Alliance, a nonprofit that does not disclose its donors and is connected to a national network of dark money groups that fund and operate similar operations in other states. The Beacon has a small staff of writers whose names appear on stories. The Beacon has broken some news, including the suspicious origins of Maine Business Daily, the website that became the focus of the New York Times investigation.

The increase in partisan news has prompted calls to regulate it. That was the case this week when Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, announced he was submitting a bill requiring the “fake news” sites to disclose who they are and who funds them.

The problem is that politicians in Augusta would ostensibly be the arbiters of defining what’s legitimate news and what’s partisan or fake.

That makes real news organizations nervous, while also raising questions about potential violations of the 1st Amendment.

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