AUGUSTA — As Maine’s 2020 Senate race begins to take shape, a group of political insiders and activists is launching a “grassroots advocacy campaign” to pressure Republican Sen. Susan Collins on issues likely to resonate with moderate voters.

The group calling itself the 16 Counties Coalition said it plans to use advertising, social media and community organizing to encourage Collins to “start putting families and working Mainers ahead of her special interest supporters.”

Coalition organizers insist the well-funded group will be raising issues – such as access to health care and Collins’ support for a Republican-backed tax cut – rather than directly telling Mainers how to vote in 2020. But veteran Democratic staffers or campaigners are leading the effort and the group’s announcement Monday was singularly focused on Collins.

“We are not about advocating that anyone gets elected or defeated,” said Willy Ritch, executive director of the 16 Counties Coalition and a former longtime spokesman for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1.

“This is not about who should get elected,” Ritch said. “There are plenty of people who will fight those fights. Our sole focus will be about advocacy and accountability and public education. And there are plenty of things that have happened with Senator Collins in the past several years where people are saying Senator Collins needs to start listening.”

As an issue-focused or “social welfare” 501(c)(4) organization, the coalition will not be required to disclose donors. Ritch declined to provide details about donors or the organization’s spending plans for the upcoming campaign, other than to say they are planning a “vigorous, sustained campaign” throughout the state.

Federal rules also prohibit independent or outside organizations from coordinating with campaigns or political parties, although critics of the system contend there is little transparency or enforcement of those rules.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

A spokesman for Collins’ campaign, Kevin Kelley, responded it was “interesting to see the same people who talk about the evils of ‘dark money’ hide behind it when it serves their own partisan purposes,” a reference to the lack of disclosed donors.

Kelley also questioned the coalition’s sole focus on Collins, pointing out that such 501(c)(4) groups cannot operate to benefit one party or candidate.

“The Democratic candidates for Senate are determined to raise taxes on hardworking Mainers,” Kelley said in a statement. “Because of the tax cut plan that Senator Collins supported, however, a couple with two children earning $60,000 got a $1,700 tax cut.”

Kelley added that most Maine households saw their taxes lowered.

The 16 Counties Coalition — so named because organizers say they will have leaders and a presence in each county — will undoubtedly be among a slew of nonprofit, outside organizations making “independent expenditures” in the race on both sides.

In addition to Ritch, the 16 Counties Coalition has at least three other fulltime staffers. They include Christopher Glynn, a former staff member and spokesman for the Maine Democratic Party who recently wrapped up a stint as the spokesman to Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport. Gideon is seeking the Democratic nomination to run for Collins’ seat.

In its initial roll-out, the coalition is highlighting Collins’ support of a $1.5 trillion, Republican-drafted tax cut bill in 2017 that critics say largely benefited corporations and wealthy Americans, and for votes that they claim undermine the Affordable Care Act and access to care.

Maine’s 2020 Senate race is already drawing headlines and attention from national organizations, and that will only intensify as the election draws closer.

Republicans routinely dismiss any suggestions of vulnerability for Collins, a political moderate who has coasted to re-election three times with the help of independents and some Democrats. But the environment changed with the election of President Trump in 2016, with Democrats now accusing Collins of not standing up to or even enabling Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

The national Democratic Party is clearly signaling that Maine is a top Senate target next year. And the Maine Democratic Party, which has been accused of barely lifting a finger to help previous Collins challengers, has at least one staffer dedicated solely to the race.

Democratic and progressive groups also seized on Gideon’s widely anticipated announcement last week that she will seek the Democratic nomination. Two other Democrats, longtime progressive advocate Betsy Sweet of Hallowell and Saco attorney Bre Kidman, are also seeking the nomination, and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jonathan “Tracer” Treacy of Oxford is also mulling a campaign bid.

One of the organization’s 16 county “advisory committee” members, Dr. Rich Evans of Dover-Foxcroft, was critical of Collins for supporting Trump’s tax bill and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

“She is more concerned about her position in the party as opposed to what is best for the people of the state of Maine and people across America,” Evans said. “That is my heartburn right there.”

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