Sara Gideon (left) and Susan Collins kicked off their campaigns for the U.S. Senate in Maine on July 15. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik and Troy R. Bennett / BDN

GORHAM, Maine — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and House Speaker Sara Gideon hit the road on Wednesday as their general election race kicked off, with the incumbent criticizing the state coronavirus response and upping the ante after Gideon challenged her to five debates.

Collins, a Republican, held morning events in Gorham on Wednesday touting her role in co-authoring a virus stimulus program that has given $2.2 billion in loans to Maine small businesses and was scheduled to visit the Portland police that afternoon. Gideon, who easily won the Democratic nomination to face Collins on Tuesday, held events in Bremen and Augusta and was set to meet later with people in addiction recovery in Brewer.

The candidates traded jabs through the Maine press at small events belying major national attention and spending that has flowed into the race long before the primary was decided. Collins and Gideon have aimed their campaigns squarely at each other in the toss-up race since the House speaker joined the race last June.

Gideon rode a wave of national Democratic support in the wake of Collins’ 2018 vote for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to raise $23 million as of late June in a race that is already the most expensive in Maine history. It has already attracted $15.5 million in outside spending plus millions more from dark-money groups.

The Collins campaign has hit Gideon over the Legislature’s response to the coronavirus. Leaders in both political parties agreed to adjourn the chamber in mid-March as the virus bore down on Maine and turned over sweeping power to Gov. Janet Mills to manage the response. 

Maine is one of two states that is seeing declining daily cases, according to The New York Times. But economic restrictions sparked calls from minority legislative Republicans to strip Mills of emergency powers that have left lawmakers with only an advisory role in how to spend $1.25 billion in federal stimulus money. 

Top Democrats moved this week to call the Legislature back in August, but Republicans want to limit the scope of the session. Collins’ chamber has been at recess since July 3 facing down an end-of-month deadline at which extended federal unemployment benefits will expire.

During a Wednesday event at the headquarters of Moody’s Collision Centers in Gorham, Collins further teased Senate plans to pass more virus aid and said her chamber had been hard at work “unlike the Maine Legislature.” 

“If I were a legislator, I would want to have a voice in how that money is being spent,” Collins said. “I would want to be representing my constituents and shaping where that money is going to go.”

Clockwise from top left: Sara Gideon talks with retired U.S. Coast Guard Captain Richard Tinsman (left) and retired U.S. Navy Commander Michael Labbe (right) in Augusta. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and former gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody talk on stage in Gorham on Wednesday morning. Sara Gideon speaks with attendees during veterans roundtable she hosted at the American Legion Post 205 in Augusta on Wednesday. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins speaks to employees at Moody’s Collision Center. (Linda Coan O’Kresik and Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

She skirted directly criticizing Mills’ handling of the crisis, saying they have a good relationship, though she noted Maine has lagged in dispersing its federal relief funds, a process that Mills has controlled. In a future aid package, she said she wants to send money directly to communities instead of states to cut down on future delays in disbursing aid.

Gideon shot back at Collins’ criticism and the Legislature’s work at a veterans roundtable in Augusta on Wednesday, saying legislators had given Maine a good framework to address the pandemic before leaving in March. She criticized the U.S. Senate’s work, noting that Senate Republicans have focused on confirming judges over the past few weeks and saying that funding allocated by Congress to help states was overly restrictive.

The Maine Legislature’s work this fall would depend in part on whether Congress allocates additional funding to states and whether it frees up existing money for additional uses, Gideon said, adding that the current restrictions make it “very difficult for any state, including Maine, to adequately take care of our residents.”

“We are going to spend not just the couple of days but the next three-and-a-half months really focused on getting out everywhere in the state again, understanding what has happened for Mainers in these past months, what they need now and how I am able to help them meet the challenges that they have,” Gideon said of her campaign.

After winning the primary, Gideon’s campaign issued a news release challenging Collins to five debates beginning in August. When asked about it in front of the Jotul North America stove manufacturing plant in Gorham, Collins laughed and said she wants to do 16 debates in each Maine county and would begin on Wednesday night.

Asked about Collins’ proposed 16 debates, Gideon said she was eager to debate the incumbent Republican senator and would work with Collins’ campaign to figure out how and when those matchups would take place.

Her campaign highlighted the Wednesday endorsement of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ-rights organization that typically backs Democrats but has previously endorsed Collins, an early supporter of same-sex marriage in her party who easily won her 2014 re-election.

It’s a sign of how partisan divides have hardened around Collins, who was once the most popular politician in Maine. Her approval fell from a high of 67 percent as measured by Morning Consult in 2017 to 42 percent in late 2019. Polls in the race this year have shown Gideon slightly ahead in the Democratic-leaning state.