Accusations that U.S. Sen. Susan Collins failed to stand up to alleged sexual misconduct fueled Democratic outrage kickstarting the 2020 race against her two years ago. Republicans are using a similar line but different circumstances against her front-running opponent.
The result has been a volley of unproven misconduct allegations in a race where both major candidates are women. They provide fodder for Republicans to attack House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, over her responses to different allegations against men of different political leanings as Collins weathers progressive anger over alleged misdeeds in her own party.
“I’ve not seen a case in which allegations made against an elected official have not become politicized,” said Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers University political scientist and researcher at the Center for American Women and Politics, “and I think that unfortunately is the norm, and what that means to the victim is that they become, unfortunately, part of a political calculation.”
Activists opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination swarmed Collins’ offices for weeks prior to the vote. Afterward, some called her decision a “betrayal” of survivors of sexual assault. The furor led to a fundraising push that raised $4 million for her eventual Democratic opponent.
Gideon cited Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a main reason she entered the Senate race. Her campaign has focused on the justice’s views on abortion and LGBTQ issues, not the alleged assault, though Gideon tweeted in support of Ford last fall with the slogan “Believe Women.”
In recent months, Republicans have accused Gideon of hypocrisy, pointing to allegations against former state Rep. Dillon Bates, D-Westbrook, during her tenure as speaker. An article published in The Bollard in August 2018 alleged that Bates, a former teacher and coach at an independent Portland high school, had relationships with high school girls.
Gideon called for Bates’ resignation the day the article was published. Her office said it heard rumors about Bates several months earlier but found no corroboration, saying Bates denied them then and Gideon told him she would call for his resignation if more proof emerged.
Bates resigned a few weeks later, though he continued to deny the allegations, which remain unproven. Investigations by police and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services did not result in criminal charges, though the state declined to renew his teaching credentials.
Though the Me Too movement highlighted sexual misconduct as a rampant problem in the Maine Legislature, no lawmakers have been disciplined or investigated. Experts note that women risk being criticized as overzealous if they call for an investigation when evidence is uncertain. They also risk enabling abuse to continue if they stay silent.
“The point is not to excuse the complicity, and the point is not to deny that women — particularly white women who have something to gain from favor with white men — can be advantaged,” said Juliet Williams, a gender studies professor at UCLA. “But it’s also to say that it’s not coincidental that the fall guy is a fall woman.”
Senate Republicans’ campaign arm has run ads suggesting Gideon failed to act on knowledge of Bates’ alleged misconduct. Collins’ campaign has pointed to Gideon’s actions as evidence of her hypocrisy, contrasting it with her reaction to the Kavanaugh allegations. Maine GOP Chair Demi Kouzounas told supporters last week the party was trying to expose another legislator connected to Gideon, though she did not provide details and the party did not elaborate.
The incumbent’s campaign has also tried to link Gideon to Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer recently convicted of sexual abuse, though the links are tenuous, amounting to a contribution from a Weinstein lawyer that was donated to a charity and a contribution made by Weinstein in 2013 to a super PAC now backing Gideon.
Two independents, Lisa Savage and Max Linn, will join Collins and Gideon on the Senate ballot in November. Linn, a retired financial planner who holds views to Collins’ right and Gideon’s left, faced sexual harassment allegations as a candidate in Florida decades ago, though he denied both and they were dropped. Allegations of misconduct have also played a role in the 2020 presidential race, which has spilled over to Collins and Gideon.
In 2016, Collins opposed Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen women, according to Business Insider. The Maine senator has declined to say whether she opposes the Republican president this year, citing a desire to focus on her own race.
When former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, who Gideon favored in Maine’s presidential primary, was accused of sexual assault by former staffer Tara Reade this spring, Republicans criticized the House speaker for not speaking out.
This week, Gideon’s campaign decried the “despicable” attacks as showing how Collins has changed while pointing to the speaker’s record on bills on sexual harassment and domestic violence. Collins’ campaign said the subject shows Gideon “says one thing and does another.”
Williams, the UCLA professor, pointed to the policy sphere as an area where candidates, regardless of past actions, could work to address the issue of sexual misconduct.
“If you’re waging a political campaign, you have to do more than indict the other person’s character,” she said. “You need to say how, from a political standpoint, you would make a difference.”