Democrat Sara Gideon and Republican Sen. Susan Collins accused each other of failing to show leadership and clashed Thursday over their records during a heated debate in Maine’s high-profile Senate race.

With less than three weeks remaining in a contest with national implications, Collins and Gideon wasted no time before criticizing each other on issues from health care to the coronavirus. Independents Max Linn and Lisa Savage, meanwhile, highlighted how they would do things differently in a Congress that they say is controlled by corporations and the political parties.

The result was a fast-paced, issue-packed debate occurring less than three weeks before Election Day even as hundreds of thousands of Mainers prepare to cast early ballots.

Pulling from the week’s headlines, Maine Public’s moderators opened the debate by pressing Collins on whether she believes Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett is qualified. Collins has said she opposes voting before the election to fill the court vacancy created last month by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“I have not approached the merits of Judge Barrett at this point,” Collins said. “What I have concentrated on is being fair and I don’t think it is fair to have a vote prior to the election.”

But Collins then blasted Gideon for a what she claimed was “very misleading and unfair attack” in an ad claiming that she supported “181 far-right judges,” the majority of whom had bipartisan support.

But Gideon said the judicial branch has become politicized under President Trump with the help of Republican senators, including Collins.

“Those 181 judicial nominees that she chose to confirm, some of them were rated ‘unqualified’ by the American Bar Association and some of them came with distinct social and political agendas,” Gideon said.

Linn, a conservative running as an independent, said he would have opposed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh because of the political “distraction” caused by the nomination even though he was qualified. Linn also pointed out he is the only Senate candidate to support Barrett’s nomination.

Savage called for 18-year term limits for Supreme Court justices and accused Republicans of attempting to “ram through” a nominee at the 11th hour while ignoring the need for more coronavirus relief.

“I do believe that the American people also don’t appreciate having the Supreme Court nominations be a sort of political football. It is … a serious task and I wish that the Senate would take all of their duties more seriously.”

Maine’s Senate race has drawn national attention – and an astonishing-for-Maine $100 million in spending – because it could help decide which party controls the chamber. Recent polls have consistently shown Collins trailing Gideon by as little as 1 percentage point and as many as 12 points, with most putting the gap between 4 and 5 percentage points.

At several points during Thursday’s debate, Collins went on the offensive against Gideon by echoing some of the most prominent attacks waged by her campaign.

One of those is that, as House speaker, Gideon has not done enough to help Mainers during the COVID-19 crisis. Reading from an April post on Facebook from Gideon, Collins recounted how the House speaker had pledged to work with Republicans to help businesses during the pandemic.

“In fact, the Legislature has been out of session since March and she has done nothing,” Collins said after highlighting her own work co-authoring the Paycheck Protection Program.

Gideon shot back, saying that despite strong bipartisan work in the early days of the pandemic, Republican state lawmakers “got caught up in the politics of Senator Collins and the national GOP in refusing” to resume the legislative session.

Gideon also pointed out that Maine has among the nation’s lowest COVID-19 infection and death rates because “the leadership that has happened here” and despite a lack of leadership at the national level from President Trump. She then used the topic of COVID-19 to repeat one of her campaign’s frequent attacks on Collins: that she won’t tell voters if she supports Trump’s reelection.

“This matters because it is about what you think of leadership in this country, Senator Collins,” Gideon said. “It is not about people needing your advice. It is about who you are and what you think about what is happening in this country.”

The candidates also clashed on the issue of health care as Gideon accused Collins of potentially undermining the health care of millions of Americans by supporting the 2017 Republican tax cut bill.

As part of the bill, Republicans eliminated the “individual mandate” within the Affordable Care Act that threatened individuals with financial penalties if they did not purchase insurance. That elimination set up a federal lawsuit, now pending with the Supreme Court, to overturn the ACA.

“Right now we need leadership at the federal level and we need to know that no matter what happens to the Affordable Care Act, we have a Congress that is actually going to protect and expand people’s health care,” Gideon said. “(Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell and Susan Collins have said there is no plan in place even as that lawsuit moves to oral arguments the week after Election Day.”

Collins responded by calling the individual mandate a “cruel tax” on people who cannot afford to buy health insurance.

“First of all, I was the deciding vote to retain the ACA and I have been working to protect people with preexisting conditions since before Sara Gideon moved to Maine,” Collins said. “I did that when I was in state government.”

On the issue of health care, Savage said that she believes the majority of Mainers support moving toward Medicare for All – a major platform of her campaign – but that the two major parties are too closely tied to the health care industry to make major changes.

“Having big-money influence in Washington has not gotten us a health care system that we can really use,” Savage said. “And it is very expensive and has bad health care outcomes.”

Savage and Linn are both considered long shots. But both could affect the outcome of the election by potentially triggering a ranked-choice retabulation if neither Collins nor Gideon wins a majority of votes on the first count. So both candidates urged voters to rank them first on their ballots.

Linn also sought, throughout Thursday’s debate, to portray himself as the logical alternative to voters who are tired of the two major parties. He repeatedly suggested that Collins and Gideon would be beholden to or powerless against their party leaders.

“It’s the political class against the outsider, more of the same versus change,” Linn said.

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