WINSLOW, Maine — At an outdoor, socially distanced event in rural Kennebec County recently, House Speaker Sara Gideon took a question about the toxic political culture in Washington and how she would handle partisanship if sent to the U.S. Senate.
It is the type of question that comes up often on the campaign trail. Gideon has a ready answer. She cited finding bipartisan support to override then-Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill she sponsored aiming to increase access to an opioid overdose antidote.
When you talk with people with whom you disagree you realize you often have common goals, the candidate said. The questioner followed up, asking how Gideon would work with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, if she is elected. She paused and thought.
“Some people are hard to deal with,” she said, generating chuckles from the friendly crowd.
Bipartisanship has been a hallmark of Maine’s Senate delegation, which has historically had an outsized role in national politics. Collins, a Republican, has often been named the most bipartisan senator and is the most liberal member of her caucus, though opponents argue she has tied too often herself to the party as it has drifted right.
It is also a fine line Gideon has walked as she challenges Collins in one of 2020’s most competitive Senate races, which also features independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn. While Gideon talks often about bipartisanship, she has a reliably liberal record in the Legislature and a more progressive platform than any winning statewide candidate in recent history.
Gideon has been leftward of Gov. Janet Mills, a fellow Democrat, on issues from gun control to a carbon tax in Augusta. During her campaign, she has indicated openness to removing the Senate filibuster, a move that could pave the way for her party to pass a public-option health care plan she also backs if they wrest control of the chamber from Republicans.
The candidate has harnessed progressive fury against Collins after the senator’s 2018 vote for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh with record fundraising and a narrow lead in polling this year. Gideon does not shy away from discussing her legislative record, juxtaposing herself with Collins while using some Collins-like messaging around crossing the aisle.
She highlights a bill she sponsored letting more medical professionals perform abortions. She knocks Collins on her vote for a 2017 tax bill that could undo the Affordable Care Act, though the incumbent also opposed repealing the law that year. Gideon then points to her bill codifying many of those health care protections in state law. That was bipartisan; the abortion bill was not.
Gideon, who was first elected to the Legislature in 2012 from a safe Democratic district, emerged under LePage, a combative Republican. They presided in 2017 over the state’s first government shutdown in 26 years. The LePage era, however, was followed by a wave 2018 election sweeping Mills and strong Democratic majorities into control of Augusta.
After that, Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, mixed up the seating charts so legislators would sit next to members of the other party, something she talks about often on the campaign trail and in ads, though a Maine Public reporter pointed out there are only 16 examples of Democrats and Republicans sitting directly next to each other.
Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, said the seating change helped lawmakers build rapport with members of the other party. She praised Gideon’s ability to work across party lines, citing her work on economic programs and tax reform.
“I think it just doesn’t make the headlines when people are working together,” Daughtry said. “I think the story that people look for is the partisan rancor, when I really think if you look at the Legislature as a whole, we do really work well together.”
Gideon has not always been the paragon of bipartisanship. She made headlines in 2017 after equating Republican attempts to block a spending package to “terrorism,” a remark she later apologized for while saying it was made in frustration.
On many issues, others have stepped up as dealmakers. Last year, Gideon co-sponsored a “red flag” law that would have allowed law enforcement to take guns from individuals experiencing mental health crises. The bill was immediately opposed by gun-rights groups.
David Trahan, a former Republican legislator and executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said it was Mills, not Gideon, whom his organization turned to in negotiating a compromise. Trahan said he was “a bit surprised” Gideon did not participate. The new bill, which had stronger judicial review measures, passed easily with bipartisan support.
More recently, the Legislature failed to return for a session this summer after Gideon and Jackson were unable to broker a deal with Republicans who wanted Democrats to promise that an August session would only include bills directly related to coronavirus relief.
The Collins campaign has made hay of that and decried Gideon’s support for removing the filibuster, the 60-vote threshold to block Senate action. Both Democrats and Republicans have voted in recent years to erode it, including Republicans in 2017 for judicial nominations. They have left it in place for typical legislation.
Gideon is not as liberal as adversaries often make her out to be. She has not joined activist calls to “defund the police,” instead favoring reforms like banning chokeholds and a national misconduct registry. She has broken from other movements as well, backing the public option over Medicare for All and outlining climate goals that fall short of the Green New Deal.
“We need change at the federal level,” she said in Winslow.