AUGUSTA — A leading national abortion rights organization that once supported Sen. Susan Collins announced Tuesday that it was backing her latest rival, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, in the 2020 election.

The endorsement by NARAL Pro-Choice America comes unusually early in the election cycle. It indicates the role that women’s rights and access to abortion will play in the campaigns. Collins has experienced a backlash from the #Metoo movement and various progressive groups over her vote to confirm President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, despite allegations of sexual misconduct during his high school years.

Gideon, a Democrat from Freeport who announced her candidacy Monday, also received early endorsements Tuesday from Emily’s List, another national progressive political action committee that supports pro-choice Democratic female candidates, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Sara Gideon

“I fought to expand Mainers’ access to health care because women and families should never be barred from the services they need based on where they live or how much money they have – and I’m so proud to have the support of an organization that has led this fight,” Gideon said in a prepared statement on the NARAL Pro-choice America endorsement. “As senator, my focus will be on standing up for Mainers, especially when it comes to protecting our rights and fighting for our health care.”

NARAL Pro-Choice America endorsed Collins in her first re-election bid in 2002 and contributed $10,000 to her campaign. The organization did not endorse or help fund Collins’ subsequent re-election campaigns in 2008 and 2014.

In an email Tuesday night, a member of Collins’ campaign staff pointed out that NARAL Pro-Choice America has not donated to a single Republican since 2006, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Two other Democrats, longtime progressive activist and lobbyist Betsy Sweet and attorney Bre Kidman, have entered the race, and more Democrats are expected to join. But the early endorsements, coupled with Gideon’s high profile as House speaker, underline her front-runner status in the June 2020 primary.

Kidman voiced frustration that national political organizations had jumped out ahead of Maine’s primary process in selecting Gideon as their preferred candidate.

“I’m self-aware enough to know that I’m a nobody, but this is Mainers’ choice. To have these national organizations step in and tell us these decisions have been made for us is infuriating,” Kidman said. “They are putting their thumbs on the scale, really putting their whole bodies on the scale a year ahead of the primary.”

Kidman said Sweet had more than 40 years working for progressive issues and values in Maine and she, too, was being pushed aside.

“This is the way politics have worked for too long and why Susan Collins has become so inaccessible. It’s really disheartening, and I think Maine deserves better than that,” Kidman said.

Sweet also voiced frustration and disappointment over the early endorsements.

“I, too, have had passion for these issues and have worked for them for over four decades,” Sweet wrote in an email message to the Portland Press Herald. “I have 100 percent supported every women’s issue and every single pro-choice issue in those 40 years. These endorsement decisions are about D.C. political operatives deciding whom they want to elect, not the issues impacting women. ”

She said her and Gideon’s record on the issues were identical, except her record was more longstanding.

“The most important thing is that Susan Collins is NOT voting to protect reproductive rights and health care for women and she needs to be replaced with someone who does,” Sweet wrote. “The Maine people will decide that, not D.C. groups.”

In 2018, as the Senate took up Kavanaugh’s nomination, NARAL joined with the Planned Parenthood New England Action fund to run a $730,000 advertising campaign aimed at Collins. The two groups urged her constituents to contact her and object to her support for Kavanaugh because of his anti-abortion stances and the sexual misconduct accusations leveled against him.

The groups and others spent a total of $2.1 million on television advertising trying to sway Collins, the most spent in any state on the Kavanaugh confirmation process, according to researchers at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Hundreds of Mainers, mostly women and many survivors of sexual assault, also descended on Collins’ offices in Portland and Bangor, as well as in Washington, D.C., in a failed effort to convince her to oppose Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

The pre-primary endorsement of Gideon signals that NARAL is likely to pour money into Maine again for the 2020 campaign to promote Gideon’s strong pro-choice voting record. Emily’s List also will spend significantly on the Senate race.

The PAC has enormous financial resources at its disposal and in the 2017-2018 election cycle collected more than $110 million in donations for candidates it supported.

“Mainers need someone who will fight for them in Washington and stand up to Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s attacks on women and families,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America said in a prepared statement announcing the group’s endorsement of Gideon. “While Senator Collins infamously voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the truth is she has supported many more of the president’s anti-choice nominees at every level of the federal judiciary. Mainers deserve a real fighter for reproductive freedom in the Senate and we’re thrilled to support a strong champion like Sara in this election.”

James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine Farmington, said Gideon’s entrance to the race was expected, but the early endorsements by national groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America are going to likely help her raise money and credibility.

Abortion rights supporters are very organized and energetic, he said, noting that there is a lot of “irritation and disappointment” in Collins from certain sectors, especially Democratic voters who previously supported her.

But Melcher also said if Collins lost ground on the abortion issue with moderate Democratic women who are pro-choice, she likely gained ground with Republicans and conservative voters who were pleased with her vote on Kavanaugh and Trump’s other conservative judicial nominees.

Some of those conservatives, who may have left their ballots blank in 2020, are still not going to cross over and pick the Democratic nominee in the race, Melcher said.

“I think her Kavanaugh vote helped win over some Republicans to her side who may have been skeptical before,” Melcher said. “This Kavanaugh issue really winds people up on both sides.”

More tricky for Collins will be how she aligns or distances herself from Trump, who also will be seeking re-election in 2020, Melcher said.

He said voters in Maine’s more conservative 2nd U.S. Congressional District also have a penchant for favoring candidates from more northern Maine and are prone to be skeptical of candidates from the southern part of the state, especially Cumberland County.

Nicole Clegg, the vice president of public policy for the Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund, Planned Parenthood’s political arm in Maine, said the group was not yet endorsing a candidate in the 2020 Senate race. She noted that Gideon had previously been endorsed by the group in her campaigns for the Maine Legislature.

Clegg said Gideon had a 100 percent pro-choice voting record with Planned Parenthood. Although many voters don’t choose a candidate based on abortion alone, a pro-choice position can be a deal-closer in Maine, Clegg said.

“The intensity of support (for pro-choice candidates) has certainly intensified,” Clegg said.

 

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