Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon announced Monday morning that she will challenge US Senator Susan Collins, potentially setting up one of the most closely watched contests in the country on the 2020 ballot.
Democrats, locally and nationally, have indicated they plan to target Collins, the sole Republican in Congress from New England and long-considered a political moderate, since her high-profile decision to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. After several weeks of public indecision, Collins was one of two senators whose support gave Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of teenage sexual misconduct, enough votes to get on the court.
“At one point, maybe Senator Collins was different, but she doesn’t seem that way anymore: taking over a million dollars from drug companies and the insurance industry and voting to put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court,” said Gideon in a video announcing her campaign from her kitchen.
Gideon was recruited by national Democrats to get into the race, and she’s one of several candidates on whom the party has laid their hopes of winning the Senate. Democrats must pick up a net of four seats in 2020 to get the majority — three if Trump loses the White House — and several of those Senate contests involve defeating incumbents.
Knocking off Collins, 66, won’t be an easy feat. She has been in the Senate for 22 years and, until recently, polls showed her to be one of the most popular senators in the country. While Collins hasn’t officially announced whether she will seek a fifth term, she has amassed $3.8 million in her campaign account.
Indeed, in a statement from her staff, Collins signaled she will make her length of service in Washington part of her case if she runs again.
“One of the reasons why Senator Collins has been so effective is that she has more seniority than any U.S. Senator from Maine over the past 70 years,” said Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley. “She will continue to build on her record of extraordinary accomplishments for the people of Maine.”
A Rhode Island native, Gideon, 47, served on the Freeport town council before being elected state representative. She became speaker in 2016, and during much of her tenure, served as the de facto head of the Democratic Party in Augusta.
While in the capital, Gideon often waged policy fights against a Republican governor, Paul LePage, and a Republican-led state Senate during Maine’s government shutdown and legislative battles over whether to implement the Affordable Care Act in the state. She led a successful effort to override LePage’s veto on drug treatment programs.
In an interview with the Globe, Gideon said that experience would translate well to the political environment in Washington.
“Governor LePage was focused on not making government work, and yet despite that I was able to bring Republicans and Democrats together to get something done,” said Gideon. “We have a LePage-like chief executive in Washington and stalemate, and I think I can use my experience to get things done for Mainers.”
If she wins the nomination, Gideon may also have the bonus of a cash infusion.
In the aftermath of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, liberal activists began crowdfunding an effort to hold money in escrow for the eventual Democratic nominee to challenge Collins. So far, $4 million has been raised in the effort, according to the group’s website.
Gideon told the Globe she had not made a decision on whether to accept the money should she become the nominee. At the time, Collins described the effort as a form of bribery to get her to change her mind.
Gideon will run in the Democratic primary against Betsy Sweet, a longtime progressive activist who lost a primary bid for governor last year. In an interview, Sweet welcomed Gideon into the contest and called her “a friend” and “well-qualified,” but she also described her challenger’s campaign as not the best approach.
“The old playbook that got us into this mess is not going to be the playbook that gets us out,” said Sweet. “Getting big donors and having flashy television ads isn’t going to work. This is going to be won kitchen table by kitchen table.”
Former UN ambassador Susan Rice, who has family roots and a house in Maine, briefly discussed taking on Collins. But in April, the Democrat told a women’s conference in Manhattan, where she lives, she wouldn’t run after all.