Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon says hello to some of her supporters near the Woodfords Club in Portland on Tuesday Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon won Tuesday’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary, setting the stage for a contentious contest against Republican Sen. Susan Collins this fall with potential national implications.

With 48 percent of precincts reporting, Gideon had received roughly 69 percent of the vote, followed by Betsy Sweet with 22.5 percent and Bre Kidman with 8.5 percent. The Associated Press declared Gideon the winner just after 9:30 p.m. as early returns showed her building a massive lead over her two opponents.

In remarks broadcast live on Facebook, Gideon thanked Kidman and Sweet for their campaigns but continued to focus on Collins, seeking to link Maine’s incumbent senator to President Trump by saying she has “enabled and excused his attacks on democracy.”

“After 24 years in Washington, Senator Collins has become part of that broken system, putting special interests and her political party first,” Gideon said. “And Mainers know it and feel it.”

Reaction to Gideon’s decisive victory came swiftly from political groups in Maine and around the country, highlighting the national focus on a race that could help decide which party controls the Senate next year.

“In the Senate, Sara will continue to build on her impressive record of fighting for Maine’s hardworking families by bringing down health care costs, tackling the opioid crisis, and boosting economic opportunity through tax relief, job training and education,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat and chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “Mainers will have a champion in Sara, and we look forward to continuing to support her campaign to victory.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, meanwhile, said Maine’s House Speaker had “a record of failed leadership” and echoed some of the attacks that Collins’ supporters have been waging against the presumptive Democratic nominee for weeks.

“Mainers know they can’t risk gambling on Guilty Gideon and (her) habit of putting her own interests ahead of the people she was elected to represent,” Nathan Brand, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement.

Tuesday’s primary election was like no other in recent Maine history as voters sought to cast ballots amid a coronavirus pandemic. Municipal clerks may require more time to tabulate Tuesday’s results because more than 200,000 voters had requested absentee ballots rather than vote in-person at the polls, which is a record for a primary in Maine.

Betsy Sweet talks to supporter Joan Kraus outside the polling center at South Portland Community Center on Tuesday.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But Gideon’s massive margin means she will avoid a ranked-choice tabulation against Sweet and Kidman.

The Democratic race to take on Collins pitted Maine’s House speaker – the favorite among national party leaders – against two more progressive candidates who said their election would help usher in much-needed changes to the Democratic establishment in Washington.

Earlier Tuesday, the three candidates visited polling places from Presque Isle to Portland and from Bar Harbor to Biddeford on an election day unlike any other in recent history. Gideon will now take on a well-known, well-funded incumbent in a race that is already the most expensive campaign in Maine history and could be one of the costliest Senate races in the country this year.

In a brief interview late Tuesday, Gideon said the primary results – while still incomplete – demonstrated the enthusiasm Democrats had in participating in the election. And that is something Gideon said her campaign has noticed from early on as large crowds packed her regular “Suppers with Sara” events before the COVID-19 pandemic largely shutting down in-person campaigning.

“What is clear is the needs of Mainers are not being met right now and people desperately feel they need to be represented in a different way,” Gideon said.

The 48-year-old Gideon campaigned on such bedrock Democratic issues as reproductive rights, expanding access to affordable health care, the environment, LGBTQ concerns and education. A mother of three who served on the Freeport Town Council, Gideon has represented the town for four terms in the Maine House, including the last 3 ½ years as House Speaker.

Bre Kidman, a criminal attorney and performance artist. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Gideon also proudly points to her numerous, high-profile clashes with former Republican Gov. Paul LePage as evidence of her political toughness and willingness to stand up for Democratic values.

Sweet has been a well-known figure inside the Maine State House for decades as she advocates on behalf of low-income Mainers, women, sexual assault survivors, the disabled community and other underrepresented groups. The Hallowell resident said those decades of lobbying – including during the budget-writing process – demonstrate her lifelong commitment to progressive issues and provide her with valuable knowledge of the political process.

Sweet ran for governor in 2018 and finished third in the seven-person Democratic primary after picking up significant support during the ranked-choice tabulation of the results.

Both Sweet and Kidman campaigned on the need for Congress to enact Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and to work to lessen the influence money on politics.

Kidman, an attorney who often serves as court-appointed defense counsel to low-income clients, spent nearly all of the roughly $23,000 the campaign raised on charitable programs, including helping families during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kidman, who self-identifies as non-binary and goes by the pronouns they/them/their, said their background as a medium-income resident would help them represent the interests of average Maine households.

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon speaks with members of the media Tuesday near the Woodfords Club polling in Portland. Her campaign had raised more than $23 million by June 24. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

But Sweet and Kidman were overshadowed by Gideon as soon as she entered the race and picked up endorsements from big-money, influential national groups such as EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Critically, Gideon also immediately landed an endorsement from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and the support of the national party’s massive campaign machine, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Those high-profile endorsements helped Gideon raise more than $23 million for her campaign as of June 24, demolishing all previous fundraising records in Maine even before the Democratic primary. Since announcing her candidacy in June 2019, Gideon has focused almost exclusively on Collins, not her primary opponents.

Factoring in the nearly $17 million raised by Collins’ campaign to date and the tens of millions in spending by outside groups, Maine’s Senate race is already the most expensive race in state history and could be one of the costliest Senate races nationwide in 2020.

Collins is facing the toughest reelection fight of her more than two-decade-long career in Congress as Democrats seek to shatter her reputation as a moderate yet influential Republican vote in an increasingly conservative caucus.

Instead, Democrats portray Collins as toeing the party line in the era of Trump – who polls suggest is deeply unpopular among the majority of Mainers – or only voting against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, when it doesn’t matter or when she is part of a broader revolt. Recent polls show Collins’ approval rating among Maine voters sliding dramatically.

All three Democrats in the race cited Collins’ pivotal vote in October 2018 to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as a key reason for their decision to enter the race. Collins’ high-profile decision on Kavanaugh, who was facing allegations of sexual assault from his high school days, also sparked an unprecedented fundraising campaign.

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Betsy Sweet gives her concession speech to a small crowd Tuesday at Maine Craft Distilling in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Using internet-based crowdfunding to raise small-dollar donations, Be a Hero PAC, Mainers for Accountable Leadership and the Maine People’s Alliance raised more than $4.1 million for whoever won the Democratic primary to challenge Collins.

“In 2018, after (Collins) voted for Kavanaugh, Mainers raised $4 million for her future opponent,” Ady Barkan, the progressive activist who co-founded the national Be A Hero PAC, said Monday in a Twitter post. “Now, they’re days away from handing that check over. Are you ready? The fight to unseat Susan Collins is about to heat up.”

In addition to Collins and Gideon, two independents have qualified to appear on the November ballot: Lisa Savage, a Green party member from Solon who is running as an independent and Max Linn, a Bar Harbor businessman who failed to qualify for the Republican primary ballot for U.S. Senate in 2018. That means the November election will also be a ranked-choice process in which voters and list their candidates in order of preference.

Voter turnout at the polls was relatively light Tuesday but is likely to be offset by the more than 200,000 absentee ballots requested by Mainers, which is a record for a primary.

Kathleen Marra, chairwoman of the Maine Democratic Party, thanked election administrators for staging Tuesday’s election during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I also want to thank each candidate who competed in today’s primary election on their hard fought campaigns, especially under challenging circumstances,” Marra said in a statement. “As we await final results, it’s clear that Maine people are fed up with Republicans in Washington and fired up by Democrats who wake up every day and fight for them. I look forward to working with our strong slate of candidates to continue making progress on issues that matter most to Mainers.”

Several Democratic voters mentioned Gideon as they cast their ballots in-person on Tuesday despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Auburn voter Jen August said she wanted to cast her vote for Gideon.

“Voting I think is worth the risk,” August said.

Likewise, Paul Beland of Lewiston said he had contemplated voting absentee, but was working from home and had time to vote in person, so he did.

“I felt it was my duty to vote,” Beland said. “A couple of the local bond issues were a big thing for me, too, and I’m pretty strongly in favor of Sara Gideon and wanted to vote for her.”

Press Herald Staff Writer Scott Thistle contributed to this report.

 

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