LEWISTON, Maine — When Shenna Bellows walks into Lewiston on Aug. 4, if all goes as planned, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate will be at least figuratively following in the footsteps of some mighty Maine Republicans.
Bellows, the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the underdog challenger to Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, intends to hit the campaign trail on foot July 20 in Houlton.
Bellows, of Manchester, will walk some 350 miles and end in Kittery.
But the idea of putting boots on the ground to connect a candidate more directly with the people was hatched more than four decades ago by the campaign of William Cohen, a Republican candidate for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in 1972.
“In all of our polling it showed that the people really didn’t think that Republicans cared about them,” said Christian Potholm, a Bowdoin political science professor, pollster, author and Cohen’s campaign manager in 1972.
Potholm also has detailed the 1972 Cohen campaign, among others, in his 2003 book, “This Splendid Game: Maine Campaigns and Elections, 1940-2002.”
Cohen, also the underdog at the time, trekked some 600 miles on foot through the district. He started at Maine’s western border with New Hampshire and walked to Fort Kent.
Cohen went on to win the seat, serving three terms, before moving on to the U.S. Senate and eventually serving as secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton.
The trek became known as simply “The Walk,” and its goal of showing voters the candidate cared about them enough to come to them in person and on foot, hear them out and ask for their vote worked, according to Potholm.
The election tactic worked so well, “The Walk” became a part of other Republican candidates’ campaigns in years to follow. But it also became a regular event for Cohen, even after he was elected, because of the connections and insights it gave to the people he represented, Potholm said.
Other Republicans who completed variations of the walk included David Emery, Olympia Snowe and Jock McKernan.
“The art form of the walk actually became a staple of these campaigns for the next 15 or 20 years,” Potholm said.
A student of his first suggested the idea for Cohen based on U.S. Senate campaigns in Illinois and Florida, Potholm said.
And while Potholm loved the idea and was eventually able to convince Cohen to take on the challenge, he said the effort was a grueling one and one that couldn’t be abandoned once it was started.
“The one thing about it is, if you start it, you cannot stop it because then it’s a fiasco,” Potholm said. “You can’t just go out there for three days and quit.”
The fallout in the press and attacks from the opposition would be relentless, Potholm said.
He said Cohen was a fit man and former All-State basketball star who was in great physical shape at the time. Even so, he still had issues, including having to have blisters on his feet lanced at different hospitals three times along the way.
Potholm also said the people who hosted Cohen during his overnight stays provided him with such hearty meals that Cohen actually gained between 10-15 pounds during the trek.
“Bill would say everyday was like Thanksgiving dinner,” Potholm said.
Potholm said Bellows is making a smart, if calculated gamble, by replicating “the Walk.”
One of the problems with putting 30 or more days of straight walking into a campaign schedule is it will take away from some of the time the candidate could be using to raise money for the campaign.
Bellows is already trailing well behind Collins, who has nearly $5 million amassed in her campaign war chest.
Bellows has raised over a $1 million but is largely expected to be outspent by Collins when it comes to television and other political advertising. Bellows also doesn’t have the name recognition of the three-term incumbent.
“I think [Bellows] has an uphill battle, this could be a very good first step for her, but this really is fraught with danger,” Potholm said. He also said he worries Bellows may have “no idea what it’s like to be trooping along for 10 to 15 miles a day for days on end.”
He said the other question mark for Bellows will be how the Maine press responds to her efforts. In 1972 Maine’s political press corps was larger than it is today and the value of the so-called “earned media” Cohen picked up was immeasurable in that the story the press reflected was of this working-class candidate who was willing to walk 600 miles for a vote. By the time November rolled around, many in Maine had learned of Cohen’s effort, Potholm said.
If the press today will have a similar fascination with Bellows’ walk remains to be seen. But Bellows also will have the advantage of the Internet and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. But that too could “cut both ways,” said Potholm. She said Bellows’ opponents will also be able to utilize social media against her and because, “everybody and his brother has a cellphone with a camera in it,” it’s more difficult to control what photos get circulated. A photo of Bellows walking from woods after a bathroom break or just resting after doing a stretch along the way could be distributed out of context online, Potholm said.
Maine Republican Party Spokesman Dave Sorensen disparaged Bellows for mimicking Cohen.
“Instead of copycatting Republicans’ campaign tactics, she and other liberal extremists should consider adopting Senator Collins’s vision for economic freedom, fiscal responsibility and bipartisan cooperation,” Sorensen said.
Bellows, a liberal Democrat, said she is well aware of the history and the Republican roots of “the Walk.” She said her campaign even reached out to Cohen but was unable to connect with him about the walk.
Cohen also declined comment for this report.
“I think the Walk represents what grass-roots democracy should look like,” Bellows said. “Our elections should be about conversations in people’s living rooms and dooryards about issues that matter to our communities. Too often our elections have become about who has the most money wins.”
She said Friday that the goals of her trek aren’t dissimilar to those of Cohen’s campaign.
She said she intends the walk to to focus on jobs and the economy with stops and events planned for some 63 communities along her route.
Bellows said she’s been training for the walk daily, putting in time and miles walking, and feels confident she will complete it and keep to her schedule of 15 to 19 miles a day. She acknowledges “traditional media outlets in Maine are fewer” than they were in 1972, but she also said her campaign will make the most of social media along the way.
Bellows said she doesn’t worry too much about a photo of her tired or bedraggled getting out to the masses. As a former high school cross-country and track athlete, she said there’s been many photos of her “looking very tired but very happy” out there already.
“I’m walking to lift up the voices of people in communities who have been left out and left behind by decisions in Washington that benefit the wealthiest corporations and individuals at the expense of our local communities,” Bellows said.
She started her grass-roots campaign for the Senate by collecting $5 donations from every town in Maine and her walk, she said, is “the next step in the story of real people in our politics.”
“There’s no question, once we start, we will finish,” Bellows said. “Just like anything in life, we anticipate that the walk will not be easy, it will be a tremendous amount of hard work, but the benefits of meeting so many Mainers and visiting so many communities across the state and having these conversations in living rooms and dooryards will be well worth the gamble.”
Bellows also notes she has another advantage that Cohen, who did his walk in work shoes, didn’t have.
“I’ll be walking in Maine-made New Balance sneakers,” Bellows said.