Editor’s Note: First in a series of profiles of the four candidates in the U.S. Senate election.

In the spring of 2016, Maine was in the midst of an opioid crisis that had claimed 50 percent more lives than the previous year.

Attempting to slow overdose rates that were killing one Mainer per day, state lawmakers voted to provide quicker, easier access to the lifesaving overdose reversal drug naloxone. But a veto by Republican Gov. Paul LePage threatened to sink the bill.

As the bill’s chief sponsor and the majority whip in the House of Representatives, Democratic Rep. Sara Gideon went to work trying to enlist support for a measure that would allow pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a prescription. To override LePage’s veto, Gideon needed three more backers than during an earlier procedural vote – and ultimately picked up 34.

It was the second time in three years that Gideon – a new but rising face within Maine’s Democratic ranks – had built coalitions to expand access to naloxone despite LePage’s objections.

“That was a huge one and was a defining moment in that legislative session that put her forward as a leader,” said former Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, who served as Democratic majority leader.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon smiles from behind her mask while speaking with the owners of Barreled Souls Brewing Co. on Thursday, Sept. 17. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Four years later, Gideon is in the midst of the political fight of her life as she attempts to pick up enough votes to send her to Capitol Hill next year and send Republican Sen. Susan Collins home to Maine after 24 years in Congress.

Gideon is highlighting her work on issues like Maine’s response to the opioid crisis, climate change and prescription drug costs to portray herself as a bipartisan leader able to get work done.

Yet some Republicans paint her in a harsher light, accusing Gideon of being unwilling to compromise on key issues and so focused on her Senate bid that she has failed to exercise leadership during the coronavirus pandemic.

“There were lots of conversations and times when it was just her and I working out issues, and there were lots of times when we were successful, but there were far more times when it was less than easy,” said Ken Fredette, a former House Republican leader under both Gideon and her predecessor as House speaker, Mark Eves.

But longtime acquaintances and supporters of Gideon say they are not surprised the 48-year-old mother of three has climbed from Freeport town councilor a decade ago to the nominee in one of the most competitive (and expensive) Senate races in the country.

“I think Sara had the intuitiveness that one needs,” said former Maine Senate President Beth Edmonds, a Freeport resident who served as treasurer on Gideon’s first legislative race. “She understood she had to learn things in the Legislature and she had a certain amount of personal drive. … I did have a sense that she would go far, and I think she will go all of the way.”

Whether Gideon will go all the way this November is unclear, given Collins’ stature in Maine and national profile, never mind the relentless attack ads from deep-pocketed outside groups.

Unable to depend solely on left-leaning southern and coastal communities to win a statewide race, Gideon must convince rural voters that she will represent their interests better than Maine’s senior senator.

She must also reckon with accusations that, as Maine’s House speaker, she hasn’t done enough to help average citizens cope with the pandemic since the Legislature abruptly adjourned in March.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon speaks to a reporter following a campaign event at Crystal Spring Farm on Thursday, Sept. 17. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Critics contend that, as one of the state’s highest-ranking legislators, Gideon had a platform to apply public pressure and hold the Maine Department of Labor accountable when a breakdown in the overwhelmed unemployment system prevented tens of thousands of jobless Mainers from quickly getting assistance. But Gideon did little publicly as the Democratic administration of Gov. Janet Mills struggled to deal with the problem.

And the bipartisan skills that Gideon lists as one of her strengths weren’t enough to convince Republicans to agree to convene the Legislature for a special session to finish work on bills and exercise oversight over Mills’ response to the pandemic. Republicans’ refusal to reconvene for anything but pandemic-related issues means hundreds of bills – many of them bipartisan – will likely die this year.

“Speaker Gideon has failed to discuss with us the possibility of a limited session agenda, has made no attempt to talk with any Republicans about working together and yet continues to say she will work with anyone to help Maine,” Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, an Oxford Republican who serves as House minority leader, said in a statement. “Claiming to work across the aisle to help bring people together, while making no real attempt to do so during a national emergency, isn’t working together and is a failure of leadership.”

Gideon and Democrats have, in turn, accused Republican lawmakers of hypocrisy by holding rallies in the early months of the pandemic demanding lawmakers return to Augusta and then twice blocking a special session months later.

Meanwhile, the partisan stalemate has allowed Collins and her Republican backers to repeat a “Sara did nothing” drumbeat during the pandemic, as the incumbent crisscrosses the state touting her co-authorship of a relief program utilized by roughly 28,000 Maine businesses.

Yet poll after poll has shown Gideon leading Collins – typically by about 5 percentage points – despite a pandemic that has upended in-person campaigning.

For Gideon, that meant temporarily canceling well-attended “Suppers with Sara” events around the state that showcased her polished-yet-personable speaking skills and ability to connect with a crowd.

Calling the campaign “not just the race of my life but the race of our lives,” Gideon hopes to channel Mainers’ frustration with President Trump and with what she portrays as Collins’ complacency with the president. She is also tapping progressive and moderate Mainers’ concerns about health care, climate change, civil rights and reproductive issues under continued Republican control of the Senate.

“If we want to change that, there are only a handful of seats that we need to win but you can be sure that one of those seats has got to be this one here,” Gideon told about 50 people gathered at a mid-September outdoor event in Brunswick. “We do have to replace Susan Collins in the U.S. Senate. She has been in Washington for too long.”

ROOTS IN RHODE ISLAND

As the 48-year-old mother of three tells it, Gideon didn’t run for local office in Freeport with aims of one day holding one of Maine’s senior-most elected offices, much less vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

“They were not things that I had planned on doing,” Gideon said in a recent interview.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon talks with Chris Schoelfield, left, and Matt Mills, owners of Barreled Souls Brewing Co. at the brewery on Thursday, Sept. 17. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Gideon grew up in the affluent town of East Greenwich, R.I., the daughter of an Indian immigrant father and an Armenian-American mother. In high school, she was a cheerleader, ran track and was chosen for the “prom court” during her senior year.

She studied international affairs in the nation’s capital at George Washington University and served as an intern for one of Rhode Island’s senators. Prior to moving to Maine in 2004 with her husband, Benjamin Rogoff Gideon, and the couple’s youngest son, she worked in advertising for USA Today.

The family had been in Maine for five years when, as she often recounts it, someone left a message on their home answering machine asking if Ben would be interested in running for Freeport Town Council.

By then a stay-at-home mom caring for 4- and 5-year-old boys plus a 1-year-old daughter, Gideon says she heard the message and thought, “Actually, I think that’s a job I can do.”

After three years as a town councilor, Gideon defeated two Democratic primary opponents to win the nomination – and eventually the general election—for an open seat representing parts of Freeport and Pownal in the Maine House in 2012.

Two years later, Gideon’s Democratic colleagues elected her assistant majority leader in the House. And two years after that, Democrats picked her over two other contenders for the job of House speaker.

In addition to being third in the line of succession for the governor’s office, the House speaker controls part of the agenda at the State House and must also ride herd over 151 members with wildly different priorities, constituencies and political beliefs.

“I’ve seen her time and time again continue to work with people regardless of how many times they opposed her as a person or opposed the issues that she is passionate about,” said McCabe, the former Democratic floor leader from Skowhegan who now works with the state employees union.

But continuing an age-old tradition in Maine politics, Republicans have characterized the Rhode Island native as a privileged out-of-stater who can’t relate to – or represent – the interests of rural residents far from the affluent coastal communities around Freeport.

Attack ads have pointed to the Gideon family’s waterfront home, which has an assessed value of $1.3 million, as well as a failed $4 million real estate venture led by Ben Gideon that resulted in more than $57,000 in tax liens, which have since been repaid.

VICTORIES AND LOSSES

Gideon’s first two years in the speaker’s chair as well as her two years as Democratic assistant majority leader coincided with the final term of LePage. She had her victories over the combative governor, especially on bills dealing with the opioid crisis, but she also suffered losses, sparked controversies and was speaker during the first government shutdown in more than two decades.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon speaks at a campaign event at Crystal Spring Farm on Thursday, Sept. 17. Staff photo by Derek Davis

In the hours leading up to the July 2017 shutdown, House Republicans closely aligned with LePage rejected a budget compromise that had already been endorsed by Democrats and Senate Republicans. Legislative leaders went to the Blaine House to negotiate but Gideon walked out after she said LePage offered a list of last-minute demands, threw a “temper tantrum” and exhibited “aggressive behavior, specifically towards me.”

Fredette, the former House Republican leader, was also in the room that day and recalls both Gideon and LePage raising their voices at each other.

“I worked with Mark (Eves) when he was speaker, and I worked with her when she was speaker … and, without being political, when I was working with Mark, we didn’t have any government shutdowns,” Fredette said.

State offices reopened a few days later but not before enough Democrats agreed – to the frustration of many progressives – to eliminate a voter-approved 3 percent income tax surcharge on wealthy residents for K-12 programs.

It wasn’t until Democratic Gov. Janet Mills took office in 2019 that Gideon was finally able to expand Medicaid and pass bills aimed at boosting Maine’s solar energy industry – issues she had been unable to get past LePage for years.

LePage summed up the final legislative session of his eight years as governor by accusing Gideon of being willing “to throw the elderly on the street (rather) than give a Republican-backed bill a win.”

Yet Gideon worked with Democrats and Republicans to shepherd through several major policy initiatives, both during LePage’s tenure and since Mills took office. Those include ensuring that individuals with pre-existing conditions are not denied health care and that younger adults can stay on their parents’ insurance plan – direct responses to Republican efforts in Washington to dismantle the Affordable Care Act – and climate-related legislation setting new emission reduction goals.

THE KAVANAUGH VOTE

It was Collins’ pivotal vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in October 2018 that “put me in a different plane of thinking” about her political future, Gideon said in an interview.

During a Senate floor speech watched around the world, Collins dismissed allegations of sexual assault levied against Kavanaugh and said she was not concerned the conservative judge would vote to repeal the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

Within hours, Gideon and others were talking publicly about challenging Collins in 2020.

“It wasn’t the moment that I decided to run for Senate,” Gideon said. “As a matter of fact, it took me many, many months to decide to run for Senate. But I can share with you that I had never considered running for Senate before then.”

Gideon wouldn’t formally announce her decision until June 2019, after the Legislature adjourned for the year and after she had received the blessing of her husband and three children. But she instantly jumped to the front of the candidate pack due, in no small part, to the immediate public backing she received from the national Democratic Party.

By the time Gideon cruised to victory in the July 14 Democratic primary, Maine had already been partially locked down for months due to the coronavirus. The pandemic also shut down the roundtable discussions and “Supper with Sara” events that Gideon had been holding around the state.

Those in-person events were replaced with nearly a dozen “virtual town halls” between April and June as much of the state – including the Maine Legislature – closed down due to the virus. Mills exercised her near-unilateral executive authority to respond to an emergency, as did most other governors.

Yet Gideon still hauled in a record $9 million for her campaign between March and June.

With less than two months until Election Day, both Gideon and Collins are back on the trail, visiting businesses, holding roundtables and meeting with supporters in socially distanced settings.

At the Supper with Sara event in Brunswick earlier this month, attendees ate individually bagged sandwiches – rather than the pre-COVID fare of franks and beans – at spaced-out tables under a wedding tent.

In the final question of the night, 22-year-old volunteer phone banker Tessa Vaccaro asked Gideon how she should respond to on-the-fence voters concerned about Maine losing Collins’ seniority in Washington. If Republicans continue to control the Senate, Collins could become the next chairwoman of the powerful committee that actually divvies up the federal budget.

Gideon laughingly replied she gets that question “all of the time” but added all of Maine’s senators, regardless of party, have helped bring federal money back to the state. And she again framed her candidacy within the broader, national picture – while taking a few not-so-subtle swipes at Collins.

“As long as Mitch McConnell is the majority leader in the Senate, it doesn’t matter if Susan Collins is ‘hopeful’ or ‘concerned’ or ‘disappointed,'” Gideon said, echoing Collins’ frequent responses to Trump controversies. “We need more than somebody who sits on the Appropriations Committee. We need somebody who is truly a champion for us. And that is truly the person that I will be.”

Coming next Sunday: Sen. Susan Collins

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