By Tom Lamia
Two women are faced off in the race for U.S. Senator in this year’s Maine general election. One, Susan Collins, is a 67-year-old four-term incumbent with all of the scars necessary to prove it. The other is Sara Gideon, a 48-year-old Speaker of the Maine State House of Representatives with a slim resume, both as Speaker (2016) and as Representative (2012). Why should this race attract any attention outside of Maine?
One reason is its great likelihood to decide who might succeed Sen. McConnell as Senate Majority Leader and de facto Congressional Dictator of what gets voted on in his exclusive domain. The President may have a veto power under the Constitution over any bill that survives passage in the House and Senate, but the President does not have the power to kill legislation in its crib. Without a Senate majority, a President is stuck in a bottleneck in which governing becomes not the “art of the possible,” but a politically deadly obstacle course in avoiding the “nuclear option” of gutting the will of the minority by action through a bare majority. The history of how it has come to this is itself both recent and horrific in its abandonment of rules and procedures that once ensured that the Senate would act only through consensus. Now we have the familiar zero good will, zero cooperation proceedings on all issues (legislation, of course, but also confirmations and oversight, no opportunity to create scandal hearings is missed). The nation holds its breath over the health of a Supreme Court Justice whose seat could become the linchpin for Constitutional erosion if it were to be open even for a few weeks before the end of the current President’s term on January 20, 2021. We all know that Sen. McConnell would not shrink from a full reversal of his 2015 insistence that no Court nominee could be considered within one year of a Presidential election.
That is the unfortunate backdrop to this Maine Senate race that is now fully active. The campaign ads for the candidates are running (often one after the other) on television every day, to the point of (one would think) viewer exhaustion. Money is being spent at record levels. There is no shortage on either side of financial resources. Maine is a small state in population (1.3 million) and resources (GDP per capita: $42,925) and, yet, together Collins ($12 million) and Gideon ($18 million), through June 30, spent at levels that suggest there is much more from whence those numbers have come.
What is in store for the few months left before the November 3 election is not just norm shattering, it is forbidding as a projection of future Maine politics. Those politics have a proud history, especially on the Republican side, of recognizing and rewarding women with election success. Margaret Chase Smith and Olympia Snowe preceded Susan Collins as U.S. Senators from Maine. All, including Collins, have shown their independence of mind and their commitment to their Maine constituents, most from small towns and modest circumstances. Not only has Collins been elected four times to six-year terms in the Senate, she won most recently (2014) with 70% of the vote. What could she have done to deserve being in this situation where she is polling around 40% in her race with Gideon, a relative newcomer to Maine? This column, “Notes From Away,” often suggests that a person not born and raised in Maine will always be an outsider. Collins was born and raised in Maine. She is definitely not from away.
Gideon was born and raised in Rhode Island. She got her start in politics in the 1990s as an aide to Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell. She moved to Freeport, Maine, in 2004 and got into politics through membership on the Freeport Town Council, where she was Vice Chair before election to the Maine House of Representatives in 2012. In a political nanosecond she was then appointed Assistant Majority Leader in 2014 and elected Speaker in 2016. She is dynamic and skilled in politics and has won over the national Democrats, who have anointed her as their choice in this race. She is ahead and the wind is at her back.
Maine has a Democratic Governor, Janet Mills, who in 2018 replaced Paul LePage, a two term Republican who often bragged that he was “Trump Before Trump.” Since Mills (Governor) and Gideon (Speaker of the House) have held office, the State of Maine has distinguished itself in the battle with COVID-19 (Maine now has a rate of infections of 0.9 per 100,000, second nationally only to Vermont’s rate of 0.8 per 100,000). Mainers are feeling proud, and competent.
Collins has suffered from the exposure she received in the Kavanaugh nomination hearings and from her reluctance to stand up to Trump on any but the most inconsequential issues. She has had the chance to show the independence for which she is known, but has not risked the backlash that independence from Trump might bring. She has managed to present herself to the American public as an apologist for Trump, and that is not good. I believe, however, that she may still win, because her Republican roots are deep and because her goodwill in Maine is solid and broad. Right now, I would say, she is calling in her quarter century of markers in exchange for crucial political help in the closing days of the campaign. I do not count her out, as much as I would like to.