PORTLAND, Maine — Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows traded sharp barbs during a CBS13/Bangor Daily News televised debate Monday evening that featured the incumbent highlighting her moderate values and the challenger trying to push Collins to the right.
Bellows challenged Collins’ attempts to frame herself as a moderate by attacking the three-term senator on several specific votes. Bellows also claimed that “lately when it’s really mattered, [Collins has] voted with Washington Republicans to block President Obama at every turn.”
Collins, who has been cited by the New York Times as one of the two U.S. senators most willing to vote against her party, bristled at some of Bellows’ thrusts. The Democrat managed to pull Collins into a conversation about taxes that led to the unusual scene of a Republican talking about the tax increases she’s supported. Those included voting against subsidies to sugar and other agricultural sectors that Collins said “go to wealthy Midwestern and Southern farmers,” and eliminating tax breaks for energy companies that “don’t need them and we can’t afford them.”
Collins said those votes differentiate her from Bellows, whom Collins accused of supporting “increased spending for every program there is, virtually.”
Bellows didn’t mince words about what she’d cut and repeated a long-voiced campaign promise to cut spending at the Pentagon and in criminal justice, which offered a simultaneous anti-war and fiscal responsibility message. She attacked Collins for supporting the wars in Iraq, which Bellows said were a major contributor to the national debt.
“We should cut spending for defense,” said Bellows. “We need to stop spending billions spying on millions of Americans and stop spending billions of dollars incarcerating more people than any other country in the world.”
Collins positioned herself at the political center when she said she has voted five times with a bipartisan coalition to increase taxes on wealthy Americans who earn more than $450,000 per year, but framed Bellows’ stance on defense spending as reckless.
“We are living in a dangerous world, a world where the experts tell us the terrorism threat has never been higher,” said Collins. “We are a state that makes an enormous contribution to our national security and we have some 20,000 direct and indirect jobs that depend on defense spending.”
A question about balancing economic and environmental priorities led to banter between Bellows and Collins about regulating biomass boilers — wood-fired heating systems that are being used increasingly in Maine’s industrial and educational sectors — and new carbon emissions standards proposed by the Obama administration that target factories. Bellows said those standards are a crucial step to fighting climate change. Collins said she has not made a decision.
“I want to hear what the stakeholders have to say,” said Collins. “That’s the way the process works.”
Bellows said she is the candidate who would be the most responsible environmental steward.
“It is good for the environment and the economy when we go green,” she said. “Anyone who hunts or fishes, gardens or farms can see that our climate is changing with potentially catastrophic consequences here in our state.”
Here are some other highlights, most of which came during a “lightning round” of questions that didn’t offer the candidates chances to explain themselves:
— Collins and Bellows agreed that the U.S. should restrict travel between the homeland and countries where there have been outbreaks of Ebola, but not ban it.
— Bellows said the federal government should legalize and regulate recreational marijuana; Collins said it should not.
— Both candidates said they support the legalization of same-sex marriage at the federal level.
— When it comes to raising the federal minimum wage, both candidates reiterated their well-established positions: Bellows favors raising it to $10.10 an hour as proposed by Obama; Collins support a gradual increase to $9 an hour. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
— Asked about Question 1 on the November ballot, a citizen initiative that seeks to ban bear hunting through baiting, trapping or with the use of hounds, Bellows said she will vote against the proposed new rules. Collins said she never voices opinions about state-level referenda and didn’t offer a clear answer to this question other than “listen to the experts.” A range of personnel with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife have been advocating a “no” vote.
— Both candidates said they would support requiring background checks for gun purchases but would oppose other restrictions that were not defined.
— Both candidates said that the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, should be amended.
Collins spokesman Lance Dutson posted a Twitter message near the end of the debate that said “Shenna is acting like a disrespectful twit.” The Bellows campaign quickly condemned the comment and used it in a fundraising plea to supporters Monday evening.
Dutson later apologized on Twitter. “Apologies to [Shenna Bellows] for inappropriate comment during the debate, I let my emotions get the best of me.”