Big Bucks Ready to Flow Into Maine as Susan Collins Aims to Keep Her Seat

Big Bucks Ready to Flow Into Maine as Susan Collins Aims to Keep Her Seat

The Democratic nominee to challenge Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in 2020 will start with millions of dollars in the bank. And the picture of who that candidate might be is getting a little clearer.

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon announced her entry to the Democratic primary Monday, joining progressive lobbyist Betsy Sweet and lawyer Bre Kidman as candidates hoping to challenge Collins in the general election. Of the three, Gideon is the only contender who has previously held public office, and is widely considered to be the frontrunner.

Maine’s 2020 Senate race is already shaping up to be an expensive one as Democrats hope to flip a key seat in a swing state and Republicans seek to hang on to their narrow Senate majority. Adding to the spending spree is the fundraising that both sides racked up related to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court last fall.

Collins, who was first elected to the Senate in 1996, has long been considered one of its most moderate Republicans. Her record on abortion rights got her $10,000 from NARAL and $5,000 from Planned Parenthood during the 2002 election cycle, though neither group has given to her since. She was one of the first members of her party to support outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation, and she was one of three Republicans who sunk the so-called “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act in 2017.

But any goodwill Collins developed with progressives faded quickly after Kavanaugh’s nomination. Reproductive rights activists were counting on the Maine senator to vote against confirming the former U.S. Circuit judge, who had, a year previously, received criticism from progressives over his dissent in a case involving an undocumented 17-year-old seeking an abortion.

When Collins wavered as to whether she would support Kavanaugh’s nomination, three organizations — the Maine People’s Alliance, Mainers for Accountable Leadership and Ady Barkan’s Be a Hero PAC — launched a campaign on the platform CrowdPac, asking for donations of $20.20 that would go toward Collins’ future opponent if the senator voted to confirm Kavanaugh. If she opposed his nomination, the campaign said, donors would get their money back.

Collins said the CrowdPac initiative did not influence her decision and called the fund a form of bribery. She ultimately voted to confirm Kavanaugh to the court.

By the time Collins announced her decision, the CrowdPac fund hit $3 million. It has generated an additional $1 million in the months since. The total is already more than Collins’ previous challenger, Shenna Bellows, raised during her entire campaign in 2014.

The incumbent senator also saw her own fundraising totals skyrocket after the Kavanaugh controversy. She brought in $1.8 million in campaign cash during the last quarter of 2018, the most she had ever raised in a single quarter, and garnered another $1.5 million during the first quarter of 2019.

“Senator Collins will be well funded, I can assure you,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Fox News after the Kavanaugh vote.

Collins’ critics were quick to note that her fundraising spree was largely due to out-of-state donors. Since the start of 2017, the senator received nearly $57,000 in itemized contributions greater than $200 from Maine residents, which amounts to only 2.3 percent of the total itemized contributions she took in during that time period.

On the other hand, most of the anti-Collins fundraising on CrowdPac and other online platforms came in from out-of-state donors as well, suggesting that the 2020 Senate race is likely to be shaped by out-of-state money on both sides.

CrowdPac shut down its website last week after facing controversy over its business practices, so the anti-Collins fund is now hosted on ActBlue. The donations will be released to the campaign of the Democratic nominee once that person is chosen — likely after the Democratic primary next June.

Access to abortion will likely be a key issue during the general election. Gideon drew a sharp contrast with Collins during the Maine legislative session this spring, sponsoring a bill that authorized nurse practitioners and physician assistants to perform abortions.

Several independent candidates will likely wade into the race as well, including attorney Tiffany Bond, who won nearly 6 percent of the vote in the Maine 2nd District House race last year after telling her supporters to donate to local causes instead of her campaign. The 2018 midterms in Maine were the first federal election to use ranked-choice voting, which will again be in play in 2020.

By most measures, Collins is still a formidable opponent. She had $3.8 million in cash on hand at the end of the first quarter of 2019. She has been reelected to the U.S. Senate three times and carried all 17 of Maine’s counties in each of those elections. She has broad name recognition across the state, something each of her challengers will need to build.

But Maine also swung sharply to the left in 2018, with Democrats flipping the state Senate, the governor’s office and the 2nd District. Collins is now the only Republican on the state’s congressional delegation, and her approval rating — though still positive — has steadily declined since 2017, according to polling by Morning Consult.

The incumbent senator might benefit if President Donald Trump’s presence on the ballot increases Republican turnout, even though Collins herself declined to endorse the president in 2016. Trump picked up one of Maine’s electoral votes in 2016 by winning the majority of votes in the state’s rural 2nd District.

When that district flipped back to Democrats in 2018, it was the most expensive congressional race in Maine’s history, with the two candidates and their outside group allies spending a combined $23 million.

Time will tell if Collins and her opponent need more than that.