AUGUSTA — A national group that helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other liberal firebrands to Congress last year is endorsing Betsy Sweet in Maine’s upcoming Senate race in another sign of a philosophical divide among Democratic organizations.

Justice Democrats, a Nashville-based political action committee, gained national attention in 2018 when it recruited Ocasio-Cortez to challenge a veteran New York lawmaker who was a member of the Democratic leadership. Ocasio-Cortez and other liberals backed by Justice Democrats are now among a small but high-profile wing of the Democratic caucus in Congress publicly challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Betsy Sweet Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Building off its successes last year, Justice Democrats is now backing additional progressive primary challengers against moderate or centrist Democratic House incumbents.

On Wednesday, Sweet became the first U.S. Senate candidate to pick up an endorsement from the organization. In endorsing Sweet, a well-known progressive activist and lobbyist in Augusta, Justice Democrats separated itself from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other perceived “establishment” groups backing House Speaker Sara Gideon’s bid to challenge Republican Sen. Susan Collins in 2020.

“We’re excited to endorse @BetsySweetME,” Justice Democrats said in a Tweet on Wednesday. “Betsy has spent her entire life fighting for working families all across the state of Maine. It’s clear that Susan Collins has to be replaced with a bold progressive champion.”

Maine’s 2020 Senate race is expected to be among the most closely watched in the country as Collins faces what could be the biggest challenge of her 22-year career in the Senate, if she decides to run again. But first, Democrats will have to decide who would represent them on the same ballot as Collins, who has breezed to re-election three times.

There are currently four declared candidates – Gideon, Sweet, Saco attorney Bre Kidman and Bangor resident Michael Bunker – although additional Democrats could enter the race.

Sweet announced her campaign in early June, hoping to build off momentum and name recognition gained during her bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination last year. But Gideon soon overshadowed Sweet as she immediately picked up endorsements from the DSCC – the Democrats’ national Senate campaign arm – as well as other groups such as Emily’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Those endorsements fueled frustration among some liberals in Maine that out-of-state political forces had hand-picked Gideon – who is, by most objective accounts, a vocal voice for progressive issues in Augusta – before the primary race had even begun.

In an interview Thursday, Sweet said that she is “definitely not the establishment candidate – they have made that very clear.” Sweet said she was proud to receive the Justice Democrats endorsement, adding that she believes a “robust primary” will help the state and the Democratic Party as it gears up to take on Collins.

“They decided to (endorse) a Senate race because they believe in my past, but also my vision for the future,” Sweet said.

“They are people who have been working to elect candidates – often underdog candidates – who are  very much in line with the people of Maine on issues such as universal health care … and saving our coastal resources from climate change, working on a Green New Deal and getting big money out of politics,” Sweet said.

Sweet has been active in efforts to remove “big money” from politics for decades in Maine. That message resonates with Justice Democrats, which says on its website that “the corporate wing of the (Democratic) party keeps getting in the way” of more transformational change within the party.

Both Sweet and Gideon have pledged not to accept donations from corporate political action committees and have accused Collins of relying on PAC money to fund her campaigns. A leadership PAC run by Gideon to help state-level legislative candidates has accepted corporate PAC donations in the past, which is common for leadership PACs in Maine.

It is unclear whether Justice Democrats’ endorsement will translate into additional individual donations to Sweet or how the group will be involved in her primary campaign. The organization did not reply to a request for comment Thursday.

What is clear, however, is that the Maine Democratic Party plans to continue focusing on Collins – and officially staying out of the party primary – in hopes of keeping Maine’s 2020 Senate race in the national spotlight.

“Senator Collins has let a lot of people down over the past few years, and now we’re seeing unprecedented energy from Mainers throughout the state who are ready for a change,” Alex Steed, spokesman for the Maine Democratic Party, said in a statement. “From now until November 2020, the Maine Democratic Party will continue turning energy into results and hold Senator Collins accountable for jeopardizing Mainers’ health care and pocketbooks in the name of corporate profits.”

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