WASHINGTON — Shenna Bellows was entrenched in legislative battles over warrants and police surveillance in Maine last year when a state lawmaker asked the question: “Isn’t the problem at the federal level?”

Looking back, Bellows said those concerns were a key factor in her decision months later to resign from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and launch what is widely considered a longshot campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

In a midterm election dominated by economic debates, Bellows, of Manchester, and a handful of other challengers nationwide see the National Security Agency’s controversial domestic surveillance activities as a winning argument against incumbents who have defended aspects of the programs.

“Congress has authorized the NSA and other intelligence agencies to spend billions of dollars spying on ordinary Americans while cutting funding for other programs such as Head Start and education,” said Bellows, a Democrat making her first bid for political office. “Congress’s priorities are all wrong.”

Collins’ campaign, meanwhile, said she is listening to arguments from both sides of the issue but that most Mainers are concerned about other topics.

“Everywhere she goes, people tell her that their number one concern is sluggish job growth in our still-lagging economy,” said Collins’ spokesman, Kevin Kelley. “As American families continue to struggle to get the jobs they need at wages they deserve, it is more important than ever for members on both sides of the aisle to do everything they can to embrace policies that will help employers grow, succeed, and create jobs.”

Bellows agrees that the economy is the top issue, but she is not alone in hoping to capitalize politically on the NSA controversy.

In a smattering of congressional races across the nation, Democrats and Republicans are courting a cross-section of voters – from far-left liberals to Constitution-quoting tea partiers – who may differ on other policy issues but are united in anger over what they see as the degradation of civil liberties.

“What makes this issue especially interesting is that it is largely nonpartisan,” said Dave Maass, spokesman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates nationally on electronic privacy and consumer rights issues. “This is something that doesn’t come down on the right or the left. The true progressives are opposed to NSA surveillance and the true conservatives are opposed to NSA surveillance.”

In South Carolina, the primary challenger to veteran Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, state Sen. Lee Bright, is running as a constitutionalist and has targeted Graham’s defense of the NSA programs in ads. Primary opponents of Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas are also seeking to capitalize on concerns over potential NSA overreach.

Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, meanwhile, has said that he believes his outspoken criticism of the NSA domestic data collection could help him in what could be a tight re-election campaign. Underscoring the division within Republican ranks on the issue, a Republican National Committee resolution calling for an immediate halt to “unconstitutional surveillance programs” was promptly denounced by Republicans who formerly held top Homeland Security positions.

Polls suggest that many Americans are concerned about the surveillance programs.

A Pew Research Center/USA Today poll in mid-January found that 53 percent of respondents disapproved of the NSA programs while 40 percent approved. That is a reversal from June – soon after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began leaking classified documents to the press – when 50 percent of survey participants approved of the programs while 44 percent disapproved.

Yet despite Americans’ apparent discomfort with the NSA programs, there has been no widespread public outcry to end the massive data collection.

And experts in the politics of national security said the relatively muted public reaction is telling, both for the prospects of major surveillance-reform efforts and the issue’s resonance with voters this year.

“It’s a really peculiar controversy,” said Joshua Rovner, an associate professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas and author of the book “Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence.”

CONCERN, BUT NOT OUTRAGE

Unlike past intelligence scandals, Rovner said, the NSA/Snowden affair does not involve “clear bad behavior, such as targeting specific Americans, or clear violations of the law.” The result appears to be concern but not widespread outrage, he said. Intelligence officials insist they are merely doing as directed after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

“In one way, this is like a scandal looking for a victim and until you find that victim I don’t think you will see a huge level of controversy over this,” said Rovner. “I haven’t seen the evidence that this is a real political issue or even an electoral issue yet.”

David Schanzer, an associate professor in Duke University’s School of Public Policy who specializes in national security issues, said NSA surveillance is “probably a third-order kind of issue for most voters.” While it may resonate with some voters, he is skeptical many will vote solely on the issue.

“Despite the (news coverage), there has not been one iota of evidence that anyone in government has abused this authority. So where is the smoking gun?” said Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. “Until there is some sense that the government is out of control and is taking this information to look at people who are not terrorists, … I think it is hard for that story to get legs.”

But John Mueller, chairman of Ohio State University’s national security studies program, noted that this is the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks that a substantial number of people have said they oppose an anti-terror program. So while it may not be a vital question to many, Mueller believes the issue might resonate politically.

“The fact that Pew finds an increasing number questioning the program is impressive,” said Mueller, author of the book “Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.” “But critics would be wise to stress not only the privacy concerns, but the fact that the program has been of such limited value in catching terrorists. And they should be prepared to counter the argument that it has been effective – even though there is little evidence to support that contention.”

Collins’ office did not grant repeated requests for an interview with the senator. Kelley, her spokesman, said in a written statement that Collins “supports legislation to increase oversight of NSA activities because she recognizes that the laws governing intelligence activities need to be updated to reflect current technology.”

The NSA’s “metadata” program involves the collection of billions of phone call records specifying who called whom and when the calls were made as the agency tries to find connections between known terrorists and U.S. residents.

Collins has defended the NSA’s domestic collection programs by pointing out that the metadata are composed of raw phone call records and that intelligence agencies would need a warrant to listen to conversations.

She has also co-sponsored amendments to a pending bill that would provide the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court with independent analysis on privacy issues related to surveillance programs.

In addition, Collins has had a hand in shaping counterterrorism policies as a former chairman and then ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and, most recently, as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

While serving on the Homeland Security Committee, Collins and former Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., co-authored the law creating the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which advises the executive branch on civil liberties issues tied to anti-terrorism efforts.

“I have supported strengthening the role of the PCLOB in reviewing the Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism programs,” Collins said in January. “I also have supported reforms to improve transparency, accountability, and oversight of the NSA’s activities while also preserving the effectiveness of our counterterrorism efforts.”

But when the issue of NSA surveillance comes up, Collins often focuses on the national security implications of the Snowden revelations and the harm that intelligence officials insist the disclosures have already done to terrorist surveillance activities.

ECONOMY AND CIVIL LIBERTIES

Bellows agreed that “all across Maine the economy is first and foremost” on voters’ minds.

In recent weeks, Bellows has called on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour – an issue being pushed hard by President Obama and congressional Democrats – and has called for “bold federal action” on climate change to spur job creation in the clean-energy sector.

But Bellows is best known for her work on civil liberties and constitutional rights issues during her eight years at the Maine ACLU. For instance, she played a prominent role in the battles to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine and to restore same-day voter registration.

Bellows was also a key player in the Legislature’s passage of two bills requiring police to obtain warrants to get location information from a person’s cellphone and to conduct surveillance with drones. Gov. Paul LePage vetoed both bills but lawmakers overrode his objections on the cellphone bill.

On the campaign trail, she frequently mentions civil liberties issues and the NSA spying controversy and has called for a repeal of the USA Patriot Act, the post-9/11 bill that greatly expanded the nation’s intelligence collection capabilities.

“On the issues of the Patriot Act and NSA spying, Senator Collins and I strongly disagree,” Bellows said. “I am running to restore constitutional freedoms and trust in government agencies.”

Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said it is smart for Bellows to play up her experience and past high-profile roles on civil liberties issues. It could give Democrats – as well as some Republicans – another reason to vote against Collins, a moderate who has enjoyed strong cross-party support in the past.

Melcher speculated that Bellows’ focus on civil liberties issues could also have helped her raise more than $330,000 in less than three months. She outpaced Collins during that period, although the incumbent still began 2014 with a campaign war chest roughly 10 times the size of Bellows’.

Melcher noted, however, that Collins has a long track record on national security issues and that many Mainers value having representatives in influential positions in Washington.

“I think most people are concerned about issues such as the economy and jobs more than about national security,” Melcher said. “But the people who care about this issue care a lot.”

METADATA AND THE PATRIOT ACT

Meanwhile, official Washington remains deeply divided over the issue as well.

The privacy board that Collins and Lieberman created said in January that a key provision of the Patriot Act “does not provide an adequate legal basis to support the (metadata) program.” That report is contrary to more than 30 rulings from Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act judges supporting the data collection under the Patriot Act.

Also, the privacy board report struck a blow to one defense of the program by stating that the board had “not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.”

The odd political dynamics are perhaps most visible in hallways and committee rooms of Capitol Hill.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has teamed up with Wisconsin Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner to introduce bills that would curtail the NSA’s domestic spying ability. Sensenbrenner was a co-author of the Patriot Act.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian-Republican firebrand and tea party favorite considering a White House bid in 2016, has joined Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado in pushing their own surveillance reform plan.

Wyden and Udall are the two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who have been most critical of the NSA activities. But the House and Senate intelligence committees’ two top members – Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan – have strongly defended the metadata collection program as legal and constitutional.

“We have carefully reviewed this program and have found it to be legal and effective,” Feinstein and Rogers said in a joint statement in mid-January. “And for seven months, both the House and Senate intelligence committees have developed legislation to provide additional safeguards on the program, while keeping the data where it is most secure and effective.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s lawsuit against the NSA has attracted co-litigants as diverse as Greenpeace and gun manufacturer Franklin Armory. Maass, the Electronic Frontier Foundation spokesman, said that while his organization does not endorse candidates or get involved in elections, the group hopes it will become a bigger campaign issue.

“I think it is a ripe issue that should very much be part of not only the 2014 but also the 2016 presidential cycle,” Maass said.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@pressherald.com

Twitter: @KevinMillerDC