U.S. Sen. Susan Collins talks to Matthew Manson, owner of Blackie’s Farm Fresh Produce, about his PPP loan during a campaign stop in Auburn on Aug. 13. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Each time she has returned home to Maine from Washington, D.C., since April, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has made a point of visiting at least one business that benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program that she co-authored.

One day last month, she stopped at Blackie’s Farm Fresh Produce and The Strainright Companies, a manufacturer of filtration products, both in Auburn. They are among more than 28,000 Maine businesses that have received forgivable loans to keep their employees paid during the pandemic.

“The PPP has literally been a lifeline to so many businesses in our state,” Collins told reporters. “(The program) has helped to sustain the jobs of approximately 240,000 Mainers and it’s also brought $2.3 billion into our state – that’s about half the size of the state’s budget.”

Although many of her visits have been official U.S. Senate office visits, they served double duty as campaign appearances in her bid for re-election – a race in which she trails Democrat Sara Gideon in all public polling so far.

Collins’ focus on economic issues during the coronavirus pandemic is a clear campaign strategy to both highlight her ability to leverage incumbency and deflect from things she doesn’t want to talk about – namely President Trump and questions about whether she’s done enough to support or condemn him. It also plays into her campaign’s biggest line of attack against Gideon – that as speaker of the Maine House, she has not done enough to help struggling Mainers.

Maine House Speaker and Senate candidate Sara Gideon talks with a constituent August 22 before a rally to celebrate voting on a contract outside of the Local S6 Union Hall. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Gideon’s pandemic strategy has been to highlight the many ways President Trump – aided by Republicans in Congress, including Collins – has not done enough to stop the virus from spreading, which is why the economy has struggled to rebound. Gideon also has aligned herself with Maine Gov. Janet Mills, whose administration has prioritized public health and has done as well as any state in keeping COVID-19 infections and deaths low.

Collins, in response to a question about the Trump administration’s overall response to the pandemic so far, called it “very uneven.” She criticized him for not listening to scientists and public health experts, for not reopening enrollment for health care plans under the Affordable Care Act and for not doing more on testing.

“But he has also done some things right,” she said. “On January 31st, he ended travel to and from China, where the virus and the pandemic originated. He was roundly criticized for that, but it saved lives.”

Collins also credited the Trump administration for working with her on the PPP.

Gideon, meanwhile, has been critical of the federal response to the pandemic and has hit Collins for saying Trump “did a lot right in the beginning.” Like Collins, Gideon said Trump has failed on testing, but Gideon wondered why Collins and her Republican colleagues haven’t challenged him as the death toll mounts.

“Unfortunately, even during a pandemic we’ve seen a process in Washington that makes no sense for the needs of Mainers,” Gideon said. “For months, Senator Collins and her Republican colleagues have been playing partisan games instead of passing any relief for hardworking Mainers, state and local governments, schools, and the Postal Service.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins talks to reporters during a campaign stop at Blackie’s Farm Fresh Produce on August 13. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Collins’ campaign, meanwhile, has contrasted the senator’s work to address the pandemic by counting the days that the Maine Legislature has been out of session and has hit Gideon for failing to do enough fix problems, including with Maine’s unemployment system. Gideon’s campaign said those criticisms are unfair and not supported by reality. Additionally, during the pandemic, governors across the country have been entrusted with more emergency powers, rendering many state legislature’s to secondary status.

Andrew Rudalevige, who chairs the Department of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College, said it makes sense for Collins to emphasize her incumbency and ability to “bring home the bacon” to Maine.

“With an electorate that is so polarized, she is not going to win over any rabid anti-Trump voters at this point,” he said. “In the past she’s had great success in appealing to independents and even some Democrats, and to the degree that that’s possible this time, it’s only going to happen on issues that are less ideologically driven.”

But Rudalevige said that could change if Congress fails to pass another relief package soon. The Democratic-led House passed a bill months ago, but Senate Republicans and the White House have yet to come together on any compromise. The Senate has been in recess for weeks but is set to return next week. Any further delays could hurt vulnerable Republicans like Collins, which could be why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed last week for a rescue package as soon as possible, in large part to help protect Republican senators in tough races.

Collins’ focus on the economy assumes Maine voters – especially independent voters who will decide the election – will care more about pocketbook issues than Trumpism.

Whether that’s true is unclear.

U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon asks a question related to high quality, affordable health care at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston on August 25. Central Maine Healthcare President and CEO Jeff Brickman is at left. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

A poll from Quinnipiac University last month asked Maine voters the main reason they favored Gideon and 69 percent said it was because she opposed Collins, compared to 19 percent who said they liked Gideon and 10 percent who said it was because of Gideon’s party affiliation. That could be a sign that the election is a referendum on Collins and could be a major reason she is trying to define the campaign on her terms.

TV ADS, PRESS RELEASES

Collins’ recent visits to Maine businesses have been supplemented by numerous television ads that tout the Paycheck Protection Program. Her Senate office also has flooded reporters with press releases announcing various funding streams coming to Maine. In many cases, the funds are perfunctory, but any story that says, “Sen. Collins announces funds,” is currency for her campaign. All elected politicians do this, but there has been a noticeable increase in announcements from Collins’ office since June.

Gideon, by contrast, has been largely sidelined as Maine’s speaker of the House since March, when the Legislature adjourned. Since then, most of the state’s pandemic response has been driven by Gov. Mills. That has been the case in other states, too, but it means Gideon hasn’t gotten much opportunity to take credit and Collins’ campaign has hammered Gideon on this point.

Rudalevige said while it’s true the Maine Legislature hasn’t been productive during the pandemic, “states can’t run up deficits like the federal government can.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins selects corn ears during a campaign stop at Blackie’s Farm Fresh Produce in Auburn on August 13. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Additionally, Gideon and Mills are both Democrats, so Gideon has been reluctant to criticize the governor’s response – something her Republican counterparts in the Maine Legislature have done. By the time May hit, some Republicans were clamoring for the Legislature to return, mostly because they wanted to provide a check on Mills, who was making decisions by executive order.

Over the last several weeks, Gideon and Maine Senate President Troy Jackson have called for reconvening. But now, it’s Republicans who are balking.

Gideon also has pushed back on criticism that she hasn’t done anything as Maine’s House speaker. The Legislature, she pointed out, has held many committee meetings throughout the spring and summer and has passed more than 150 bills, but has yet to fix the unemployment system that has left many Mainers in limbo.

Collins hasn’t been alone in spending time at businesses. Gideon has visited businesses as she campaigns across the state – she was even hosted by a business last month that received PPP funds, in the form of a forgivable loan. Her message on the pandemic response has been slightly different from Collins’, focusing more on the health care impacts.

In remarks to community leaders in Norway, Gideon said the economy is never going to recover without a more coordinated strategy to fight the pandemic.

Charlie Melhus, co-owner of Norway Brewing Co., agreed. His business received PPP funds but he wasn’t willing to give credit for the program to Sen. Collins.

“More federal loans are not exactly what most businesses want or can shoulder,” he said. “Forgiveness is great if you can get it, but the parameters are a little bit fuzzy right now.”

Melhus said the current challenges cry out for leadership more than anything else, and he hasn’t seen that from Collins.

Matt Manson, who owns Blackie’s Farm Fresh Produce, said during Collins’ visit last month that he doesn’t think he would have been able to keep his workers employed without the PPP program. He also shared a story about how Collins’ office recently helped his business navigate the process for ensuring customers could use food stamps.

Ronald Schmidt, a political scientist at the University of Southern Maine, said Collins has a bit of a balancing act if she wants to run on pandemic response. She can highlight her accomplishments, such as the PPP, but also has to either defend or criticize the overall national response to the pandemic, which Schmidt called a major weakness for Trump and Republicans by extension.

“I think what I’ve seen is that Sen. Collins has decided to get off the fence,” Schmidt said. “Even ‘Saturday Night Live’ has made a punchline out of her desire to not fully endorse what the president does but not condemn him either. This is her saying I’m going to run on the power of incumbency and what I’ve done and can do for Maine. I think that’s a smart move.”

Collins is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the most powerful committee in Congress. She had hinted this year that she is in line to chair that committee if Republicans keep control of the Senate, but that’s not a certainty.

U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon, left, listens as Sarah Carter, a Norway selectboard member, brings up a point during a round-table discussion last week at the Norway Brewing Co. on state and local government funding. To Gideon’s left is brewery co-owner Brenda Melhus. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Collins has also been pushing for another round of PPP funding in the next relief bill that would be aimed at businesses that have lost more than 35 percent of their revenue over last year. Negotiations on that, and other coronavirus relief measures, have stalled in Congress.

And the PPP hasn’t been without controversy, most notably how little transparency there has been about who received funds. And Collins has been criticized for working with lobbyists to write an exemption for large hotel and restaurant chains to access PPP loans. Gideon’s campaign also has raised concerns about how the federal pandemic response, including the PPP, has favored special interests and large corporations.

THE IMPACT OF TRUMP

Collins was first elected to the Senate in 1996, when she defeated Democrat Joe Brennan with 49 percent of the vote. Since then, she has increased her support every time her name has been on the ballot – 58 percent in 2002 against now-U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, 61 percent against then-U.S. Rep. Tom Allen in 2008, and 68 percent against Shenna Bellows, who is now a state senator, in 2014.

But President Trump has not been good for Collins. During his first term, she went from being one of the most popular senators in the country to one of the least popular.

Now she trails Gideon by an average of 4.5 percentage points in the four most recent public opinion polls and has had to campaign from behind for the first time. The race also features long-shot candidates Lisa Savage, a Green Independent, and Max Linn, a former Republican who is hoping voters want a more conservative option to Collins.

Although she hasn’t publicly acknowledged Trump’s impact on her electoral prospects, Collins has tried to distance herself from him. Lately, she has avoided talking about the president at all – and doesn’t cite her critical but unpopular vote to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as a major accomplishment.

At several appearances over the last month, she steadfastly declined to answer questions about whether she supports Trump’s re-election or whether she plans to vote for him. She famously did not support Trump in 2016, detailing why in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post.

“If I were on the Gideon campaign, I would keep that hanging over her head,” said Schmidt.

Indeed, Gideon allies are reminding voters of that, including Collins’ comments after the president’s impeachment trial – during which she voted to acquit – that she believed he had learned his lesson. She later amended to say that she “hoped” that to be true.

Trump, despite his boasts, is likely lose the state of Maine. He lost to Hillary Clinton, 48-45 percent, here in 2016 but did win the more conservative 2nd Congressional District by a 51-41 margin. This year, he trails in the polls by 10 points or more statewide, although the race is much closer in the 2nd District.

Schmidt said constituent service has always been a big part of Collins’ persona in Maine.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins talks to Auburn resident Ralph Sylvester during a campaign stop on August 13. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I think she wants to highlight that she has influence in Washington and can bring it to bear for Mainers,” he said.

To that end, Schmidt said Collins might be hoping there are plenty of voters out there who might support her even if they don’t support Trump.

“Gideon is counting on voters who walked away from Trump to walk away from his party, too,” he said.

For her part, Gideon didn’t mention Collins at all during her campaign stop in Norway last week, but did hit Trump for “abdicating his responsibilities” to lead during the pandemic.

“If we had focused on public health first, we’d be in a completely different place,” Gideon said.

She also criticized the Republican-controlled Senate for recessing without passing another relief bill.

Although Collins is the one framing the race around the economy, polls suggest Gideon might have the edge. In the Quinnipiac poll, Mainers were asked whom they trusted on the economic response to the pandemic and Democrats held a 48-41 percent advantage.

“I think as more people tune in to the election, they are certainly going to be weighing economic issues,” Rudalevige said. “But I still don’t know if that will be the driving force in this race.”

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