Despite the conventional wisdom that Maine’s U.S. Senate seat currently held by Susan Collins is not in serious contention, the spirited civil rights activist Shenna Bellows has racked up some accomplishments in her uphill fight.
She has raised nearly $2 million — two-thirds of it from out-of-state donors, according to CrowdPac.com — and she has maintained a television advertising presence attacking the quintessentially moderate and nationally respected senior senator in hopes of chipping away at Collins’ commanding lead. Is her challenge of significance?
Pitched battles for Senate seats rage across the country in Alaska, Iowa, Colorado, Arkansas, North Carolina and even next door in New Hampshire. Almost no one puts Maine on the list of key races. But Bellows, and her progressive backers such as the DailyKos, are telling anyone who will listen that Maine is in play. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but the tactics this ambitious challenger is employing deserve a little scrutiny.
In many of the more closely watched Senate races this cycle, nearly every claim one contestant makes of the other is subjected to a “PolitFact” accuracy test. This is because, as well-researched studies like “Going Dirty” — an analysis of negative campaigning in America — have established, the truth is often the first victim of increasingly costly and vituperative political contests in our country. Unfortunately, there seems to be less fact-checking in Maine’s Senate race. Time and again, Bellows has said things about Collins’ record that are blatantly untrue.
— Earlier this year, Bellows attended a left-wing bloggers conference in Michigan and proudly announced that she had the “unanimous” endorsement of the AFL-CIO. Not exactly. In fact, a number of trade unions that are members of the AFL-CIO have endorsed Collins.
— At a Democrat rally in Maine in early September, Bellows told the crowd that Collins had voted for the Ryan budget, a package of relatively austere spending cuts proposed by her fellow Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. Not so (and here the Bangor Daily News is to be credited for calling foul), Collins quite publicly voted against the Ryan budget.
— At the same rally, Bellows announced that Collins had voted to de-fund Planned Parenthood. If this were true, why would Planned Parenthood have written Collins a letter thanking her for not voting to de-fund the organization?
— Collins is widely credited for her role in reaching across the aisle last year to end a shutdown of the federal government, consistent with her long history of bipartisanship in the service of national interest. Yet Bellows has insisted that Collins’ role in brokering a deal was overblown and exaggerated, despite the widespread praise Collins earned in the national media for putting her country first.
— Bellows released an ad dedicated to “Maine workers” that was composed of stock footage of out-of-state workers rather than actual Maine workers, suggesting a certain disconnect with the realities of those whose votes she is striving to earn. While in this instance she didn’t actually malign Collins’ record, she clearly bent the truth to serve her own purposes.
This year marks Collins’ fourth campaign for election. In the past, she defeated a two-term governor, a majority leader of the state Senate and a member of Congress, all of whom ran on the basis of their records in elected office. Bellows, by contrast, has no record. But Bellows’ lack of a record doesn’t entitle her to misrepresent Collins’ positions and say whatever she believes sounds appealing to her target audience — regardless of its veracity.
One of the great things about America is the possibility for someone with as little relevant experience as Bellows to strive for a seat in the U.S. Senate. But the price we must pay for this freedom is some decent reverence for the truth, otherwise known as credibility.
If you look at who Maine voters have sent to Washington over the past half century, it is clear that we are — by and large — a pretty discerning set of customers. Bellows would do herself and the state she strives to represent a greater service by not insulting our intelligence with the kind of lies that have flowed from her campaign so far.
Sam Patten, a Maine native, is an international political adviser who has managed campaigns in Iraq, Ukraine, Georgia and other countries and has previously served as a senior adviser in the U.S. Department of State. He is a former aide to Collins.