SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — After both confirmed their attendance at an initial debate in September, House Speaker Sara Gideon reiterated to reporters on Friday that she wants to face off with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins five times ahead of their high-profile November race.
It follows wrangling over debates that began the day after Democrats nominated Gideon in mid-July. Her campaign issued a news release challenging the fourth-term Republican to five debates starting in August. Collins laughed when informed, challenging Gideon to 16 debates in each Maine county starting immediately.
That response showed Collins’ willingness to debate in a strategy that vulnerable Senate Republicans have followed nationally to draw out less-experienced challengers who are leading in polls. Gideon has held narrow leads in public polls of the race released this year. But it is news organizations and not just candidates setting the schedules.
On Thursday, Collins and Gideon agreed to participate in the first confirmed debate of the race on Sept. 11 to be hosted by the Bangor Daily News, the Portland Press Herald and News Center Maine. The two independents on the November ballot, Max Linn of Bar Harbor and Lisa Savage of Solon, also accepted invitations to the debate, which will be televised statewide.
At a campaign event in South Portland on Friday, Gideon said she was standing pat at her request for five total debates, saying it was difficult to schedule the first one and fitting in another four would be difficult with less than 90 days before the election.
“I think it would be tough to fit in more than that in that time period, but we’ll see what people come up with,” she said.
In a statement, Collins spokesperson Kevin Kelley said Gideon was “moving the debate goalposts” from her original August timeframe and “trying to create the illusion that she’s having a discussion with our campaign” after not responding to a Collins letter on the issue in July.
Gideon may not have counted on being outflanked by Collins on the debate issue. The Republican incumbent agreed to 10 in her 2008 race against then-U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, which fueled a 10-debate challenge from longshot Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows in 2014. They ended up debating five times during that race, leading to Gideon’s 2020 challenge.
BDN writer Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report.