Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Sara Gideon (from left), Bre Kidman and Betsy Sweet. Credit: Composite photo / BDN

Maine’s U.S. Senate race has long been in the spotlight as national Democrats identified the seat held by Republican Sen. Susan Collins as a key target in their effort to take back the chamber and quickly rallied behind House Speaker Sara Gideon.

While the two have aimed their campaigns at each other, Collins’ major-party opponent will be officially decided on July 14, when Gideon faces off with progressive lobbyist Betsy Sweet of Hallowell and Saco lawyer Bre Kidman in a primary to be decided by ranked-choice voting. A February poll showed Gideon to be the prohibitive primary favorite.

Gideon, of Freeport, is backed by the national Democrats’ campaign arm and has picked up endorsements from labor and women’s groups. In her insurgent campaign, Sweet has been backed by progressive groups that have fueled primary upsets in the past. Kidman, who would be the first nonbinary senator, has abandoned fundraising to boost coronavirus relief efforts.

All three candidates have critiqued Collins over her record of confirming Trump’s judges, particularly Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanuagh. But the three also differ significantly on policy, with Gideon more likely to align with mainstream Democrats and Sweet and Kidman with progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.

In a Bangor Daily News survey earlier this year, Democratic-leaning voters identified climate change and health care as their two most important issues. Taking into account those priorities and recent events, we looked at the policy differences between the candidates.

Coronavirus has highlighted the issue of health care. Candidates have put forward different solutions. Health care was a top issue for Democratic voters prior to the coronavirus pandemic, which forced 27 million Americans, including tens of thousands of Mainers, off their health insurance due to job losses, according to one study.

Health insurance through employment was “never a good idea,” Sweet said during a June 22 forum hosted by the Maine Democratic Party. Both she and Kidman support Medicare for All, a progressive health care plan championed by Sanders that would replace private insurance with a single, government-run health care system.

Proponents of Medicare for All say the plan will reduce costs by eliminating insurance as a middleman that generates profit. Having a single buyer, Kidman and Sweet have both argued, would also help lower prescription drug prices by allowing the federal government to negotiate.

Gideon, however, supports a public option that would continue to allow for private insurance but give all Americans the alternative of getting insurance through a program like Medicare.

“In the Senate, I will fight for everyone,” she said during the Maine Democrats’ forum. “I believe the way to do that is to make improvements to the Medicare system.”

Gideon also has advocated for the federal government to leverage Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices, capping out-of-pocket drug prices for seniors and ending so-called pay-for-delay schemes that keep cheaper generic drugs off the market.

On climate change, Gideon has outlined priorities while Kidman and Sweet signed onto a major progressive plan. Gideon proposes rejoining the Paris climate agreement, which the U.S. joined under former President Barack Obama but formally began to leave last year under President Donald Trump. She has advocated for modernizing infrastructure and investing in energy-efficient technologies.

Gideon has also highlighted the issue in her tenure as House speaker, during which the Maine Legislature passed several landmark climate bills after the 2018 election of Gov. Janet Mills, including one requiring the state to achieve 80 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.

Both Kidman and Sweet have advocated for the Green New Deal, a massive progressive proposal that aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions over the next 30 years while ensuring economic and racial justice through job training for workers in the fossil fuel industry and by targeting resources at marginalized communities.

The plan would also be a way to lead the country out of the coronavirus-induced economic downturn, Sweet said at a Maine Democratic Party forum last week, citing its potential to create millions of well-paying jobs.

“With the Green New Deal, we have an opportunity to address the climate crisis and get to 100 percent renewable energy and provide a pathway of economic development forward,” Sweet said.

The Senate candidates emphasize different policy responses to address police brutality. Recent protests over police brutality in the wake of the George Floyd killing have brought systemic racism and the role of policing to the forefront of political conversations.

Gideon has outlined a series of police proposals to address the issue: expanding racial bias training, ensuring departments use body and vehicle cameras, banning chokeholds and creating a registry to ensure police officers disciplined by one department cannot simply move elsewhere.

Sweet has likewise called for creating a registry and ending racial profiling. She also argues in favor of demilitarizing police by ending a federal program that makes excess military equipment available to local police departments, and for eliminating qualified immunity, a doctrine which makes it difficult to sue police officers and other public officials in many circumstances.

Kidman, whose father is a police officer, supports the activist-driven movement to “defund the police,” while acknowledging that slogan can be “hard to swallow” for some. But the movement, Kidman said, is about thinking about how to redistribute resources so that situations like mental health crises are responded to by well-equipped professionals, not police officers,

“The truth of the matter is, we’ve really asked police to do things that really aren’t their job, aren’t the things they are best equipped to do,” Kidman said. “You can’t send a gun and a badge to every situation and assume that it’s going to make things better.”