The four contenders for Maine’s U.S. Senate seat will appear together in a debate for the first time on Friday, offering voters a chance to hear directly from the candidates on issues after months of relentless attack ads and carefully crafted campaign messaging.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins and her Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, are engaged in a high-stakes campaign battle that has drawn enormous attention and funding from out-of-state interests. The pair will be joined by two independents, Lisa Savage and Max Linn, who could affect the outcome of Maine’s ranked-choice election.

Sponsored jointly by the Portland Press Herald, the Bangor Daily News and News Center Maine, the debate, starting at 7 p.m., will be televised live as the four candidates gather – safely distanced from one another – for the first time with less than two months before the Nov. 3 elections.

“We’re glad we can offer voters an up-close look as the candidates make their case under questioning,” said Cliff Schechtman, executive editor of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. “It’s so vital now for the public to have enough information to make an informed decision.”

NATIONAL EYES ON MAINE

Interest is high, in Maine and nationally, in a close race that could help decide which party controls the Senate next year.

Sen. Susan Collins greets Shaw Sprague, senior director of government relations for the National Trust, Friday during a visit in Skowhegan. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The campaigns and outside groups have already spent well over $60 million on the contest – a figure that would have seemed impossible a few years ago for a state with roughly 1 million voters.

Polls show Gideon – a Freeport resident who serves as speaker of the House in the Maine Legislature – with a slight lead over Collins, whose reputation as a moderate dealmaker and frequent swing vote has taken a hit during the era of Trump Republicanism. But Collins is a veteran campaigner and experienced debater who has won her previous elections with the help of independents and some Democrats.

An early-July survey of more than 500 likely voters by the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling had Gideon up 4 percentage points over Collins, while a late-July survey by Quinnipiac University showed the same margin between the two.

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

But many of those polls failed to ask respondents about the two independents in the race. An AARP Maine survey of more than 800 likely voters released Thursday portrayed the race as a dead heat with Gideon at 44 percent, Collins at 43 percent and Savage trailing with 6 percent. However, the poll left out Linn, a conservative who could siphon votes from Collins.

Further complicating matters, the two alternatives to the major-party nominees could divide the electorate and prompt a ranked-choice retabulation if no candidate gains more than 50 percent of the vote.

Those dynamics, combined with months of intensely negative advertising by groups backing Gideon or Collins, will be at play Friday when the four gather at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland for the first scheduled debate in the race. Because of the risks associated with spread of the coronavirus, there will be no audience at the event.

The debate will be broadcast live on News Center Maine’s two stations — WCSH-6 and WLBZ-2 — and live streamed on the websites of the Portland Press Herald, the Bangor Daily News and News Center Maine.

THE FRONT-RUNNERS

Several themes have, to date, dominated the high-profile contest between the race leaders, but there has been less talk about policy differences amid the onslaught of negative ads from both sides. Friday’s debate will delve into significant policy issues – such as health care and the economy – while also touching on some of the political or personal issues that have arisen during the campaign.

Gideon, who easily won Maine’s Democratic primary on July 14, had amassed a campaign war chest of more than $24 million as of June 30, according to the most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission. Her campaign has portrayed Collins as disconnected from Mainers after 24 years in the Senate, too willing to go along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and too unwilling to stand up to President Trump.

Lisa Savage Photo courtesy Lisa Savage

The Democrat has focused on Collins’ controversial vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh – a vote that abortion rights groups believe puts the landmark Roe v. Wade decision at risk – as well as her support for a 2017 Republican-drafted tax cut bill. At the same time, she has pointed to her work as House speaker and a Freeport legislator on climate change, education funding, the opioid crisis and protecting women’s access to abortion or other reproductive care.

“Senator Collins has been a key vote for Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, and now, after new reporting revealed that Trump knew about the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and intentionally misled the American people, she’s completely silent,” Maeve Coyle, a Gideon campaign spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Mainers deserve a senator who isn’t afraid to stand up for what’s right, and on the debate stage, Sara looks forward to sharing her vision to do just that.”

Collins has repeatedly touted her co-authorship of the Paycheck Protection Program that has funneled more than $2 billion in forgivable loans to an estimated 28,000 small businesses or self-employed individuals in Maine during the coronavirus pandemic. The campaign says Collins’ involvement in the COVID-19 response is one more example of her ability to get bipartisan work done in a polarized Congress.

The Collins campaign and her allies, meanwhile, have accused Gideon of doing nothing to help Mainers weather the pandemic since abruptly adjourning the Legislature in March as the virus began spreading. They also have levied personal attacks on Gideon over her role in her husband’s unsuccessful real estate venture that led to years of delinquent taxes tied to the business’s failure.

But Collins has refused to say whether she supports Trump’s re-election. And where Collins stands on Trump – or her continued refusal to say – could be a key litmus test for Maine voters who despise the president, as well as for die-hard Trump supporters whose support Collins needs to be re-elected.

Collins had raised $14 million as of June 30. But out-of-state political committees and super PACs had dumped another $33 million into both sides of the race, much of it spent on attack ads against Gideon or Collins.

“Out-of-state dark money groups have spent two years and millions of dollars trying to convince Mainers that Senator Collins is a corrupt liar,” Kevin Kelley, a Collins campaign spokesman, said in a statement. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Sara Gideon skipped nearly every primary debate – so it’s time that she face some tough questions and be asked to answer for the insulting charges she and her allies are inundating Mainers with.”

THE INDEPENDENTS

Max Linn File photo

While many politicos are eagerly awaiting the first in-person matchup between Collins and Gideon, Friday’s debate will also give Maine voters a chance to learn more about the two lesser-known independents.

Both Savage and Linn are long shots for the win in November. But the pair appear poised to potentially deny Collins or Gideon an outright majority victory on the first vote count. The result would be a ranked-choice runoff, delaying results for days.

A Green Independent from Solon, Savage is more progressive than Gideon as she pledges to work toward “Medicare for All,” tuition-free college and a Green New Deal. Savage also has been active in the protest movement calling for the Bath Iron Works shipyard to move beyond only building destroyers for the U.S. Navy and, instead, build “clean energy” systems.

“I’m amazed at the interest in this debate not just in Maine but across the nation,” Savage said in a statement. “People are curious about how ranked-choice voting changes the game, allowing people to vote their hopes rather than their fears without being told they are ‘spoiling’ the election. I’m interested to see other candidates’ RCV strategies.”

Linn is a Bar Harbor resident who ran as a “Trump Strong” Republican for the U.S. Senate in 2018 but failed to qualify for the primary ballot. While weighing whether to challenge Collins in the Republican primary this year, the conservative said he was harassed and threatened by party leaders.

Now running as an independent, Linn makes no mention of his support for Trump on his campaign website. Instead, the conservative is running on a platform that includes opposing the Central Maine Power Co. transmission line project with Hydro-Quebec, a five-year moratorium on immigration, student loan forgiveness, term limits and $5,000 COVID-19 economic relief payments to all Maine families.

“When I first started my campaign for United States Senate, I was told by establishment operatives that I would never be in a debate and my voice would never be heard,” Linn said in a statement. “Well they were wrong. What I can promise is that I am bringing high energy and the best damn platform in the race, and the $100 million dollar dark money Goliath better be ready for a fight.”


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