The first debate in Maine’s competitive U.S. Senate race kicks off Friday night, with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, set to face her challengers — House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democrat, and unenrolled candidates Lisa Savage and Max Linn — for the first time.
The debate, hosted by the Bangor Daily News, News Center Maine and the Portland Press Herald, airs on News Center Maine beginning at 7 p.m. and will also be streaming on the BDN’s website and Facebook page. Here is how to watch the debate and five things to watch for.
It is a major test for Gideon, who sailed through a primary with a light debate schedule.
Friday’s debate will be the first of a handful between now and Election Day, but it will be a big window into how Gideon will approach debates. The House speaker from Freeport has never been on a stage like this. The Republican she is challenging has been there dozens of times.
In what observers thought could be a close 2008 race, Collins faced off with then-U.S. Rep. Tom Allen 10 times before a 20-point victory. The Maine senator is a wonk who brings specificity and real-life examples to the stage, once working a story of a visit to an East Millinocket water treatment plant into a closing statement in a 1994 gubernatorial debate on education.
The Democratic primary provided only a few hints at Gideon’s debating style, as she participated in only three candidate forums and declined others. One was hosted by the state party and featured softball questions and no real pushback from the moderator. This will be much different.
Collins returns to Maine after a trying week in Washington.
The Senate’s return this week was marked by bickering over coronavirus relief and overshadowed by news about President Donald Trump. Tapes released Wednesday revealed that Trump told journalist Bob Woodward as early as February that he thought the coronavirus was “really bad” and later that he “always liked to play it down” as he was saying publicly that the virus would simply go away.
Collins, who has notably declined to endorse Trump this year, has not said anything about his newly revealed comments. Her office did not respond to an inquiry Wednesday. The Republican senator would rather talk about her work in the Senate than the president, but his remarks gave more ammunition to her opponents who say that she should do more to buck him.
It was also a rough week in Washington on the policy front. Senate Democrats blocked a $500 billion Republican-led coronavirus relief bill, which included provisions to extend a modified version of the Collins-led Paycheck Protection Program, but did not include some of her other priorities, including funding for local governments and $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service, though it did forgive an earlier loan to the agency.
Third-party candidates will look to stand out.
The unenrolled candidates in Maine’s U.S. Senate race do not have a lot in common — Linn is a retired financial planner from Bar Harbor who supports Trump while Savage is a teacher from Solon and former member of the Green party running on a highly progressive platform.
Savage will likely highlight her progressive credentials as she looks to pick up votes not just from Greens but from liberal voters who see Gideon as too centrist. The Solon teacher, who polled at 6 percent in an AARP poll published Thursday, released her first TV ad this week highlighting her support for Medicare for All, which Gideon stops short of backing.
Linn’s path is less clear — he supports populist policies from both the left and right, including banning immigration and providing every Maine family with $5,000 for coronavirus relief — a puzzling proposal because he is apparently looking to pass it through Congress.
He may go after Collins, whose allies tried to disqualify Linn from the ballot by challenging his signatures earlier this summer. Linn previously said he would drop out if Collins endorsed a handful of his preferred policies, which she declined to do.
Campaigns have upped attacks in recent weeks. Will it spill onto the stage?
The Senate race has taken an increasingly nasty tone, with exaggerated criticisms and attacks on candidates’ family members. The most virulent attacks have come from outside groups, although campaigns have also taken part. Candidates might try to avoid being seen as toxic on the debate stage, but a few attacks could come into play as they discuss issues.
Collins’ campaign has kept up the refrain that Gideon “did nothing” about the pandemic, citing the Maine Legislature’s failure to reconvene after adjourning in March. Gideon has defended actions the Legislature took before adjourning and pointed to the general inaction from Congress with respect to the virus since the last stimulus bill in late March.
Campaigns have focused on domestic issues so far, but there are other parts of being a senator.
Candidates have largely focused on bread-and-butter issues including health care and the economy, but other issues, including foreign policy, could come up in Friday’s debate or later ones. The virus has made the 2020 election the most domestically focused of Collins’ four re-election campaigns. In 2002, she and future U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, often aired their differing views on the Iraq War.
Collins, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has a clear advantage in this arena. Debates will be a chance for Gideon, Savage and Linn to expand their policy horizons and show how they would differ from the incumbent.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.