Senate candidates Lisa Savage, Max Linn, Sara Gideon and Susan Collins debate at Decision Maine in Portland on Sept. 11. Credit: Gabrielle Mannino / News Center Maine

AUGUSTA, Maine — Sen. Susan Collins and House Speaker Sara Gideon clashed over the federal judiciary on Thursday night in a pointed third debate of the race that remained policy-focused amid an increasingly nasty and expensive campaign.

The debate, hosted by Maine Public and featuring Collins, Gideon and independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn, was the third meeting of the four U.S. Senate candidates. It comes with less than three weeks until Election Day and after more than 130,000 Maine voters cast their ballots through absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Independent public polls have given a Gideon a narrow lead over Collins on average this year. A Pan Atlantic Research poll released Thursday pegged the Democrat’s lead at 7 percentage points, though a Bangor Daily News/Digital Research poll this month had the pair virtually tied. The race will use ranked-choice voting if no candidate achieves more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round.

The debate opened with questions about the judiciary, which has dominated political discourse as Senate Republicans have pushed to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before Election Day following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Collins, who has said she opposes any nominee before the election for procedural reasons, was asked about what she thought of Barrett, who she voted to confirm to a lower court in 2017, on her merits, a question the Republican declined to answer while reiterating her opposition to confirming any nominee before the election, a point on which she has broken with her party.

“I have not approached the merits of Judge Barrett at this point,” Collins said. “What I have concentrated on is being fair, and I don’t think it’s fair to have a vote prior to the election.”

Gideon was asked about specific court reform ideas. She has previously said she opposes adding justices to the Supreme Court, which some Democrats have proposed in response to Republicans’ success in adding conservative judges over the past three years. The Democrat criticized Collins over votes to confirm many of those judges. Collins shot back that many sailed through with bipartisan support.

Gideon also said for the first time that she would support resuming the use of the filibuster for judicial nominations, which Democrats removed in part in 2013 and Republicans killed in 2017. The Democrat has previously said she is open to removing the filibuster for legislation.

The candidates also clashed on the issue of coronavirus relief. Congress has been deadlocked on a new relief bill for months, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proposing a $500 billion plan while President Donald Trump and Democrats support something much larger.

Collins said she thought the $500 billion proposed by McConnell was a starting point but “not enough.” She also criticized Gideon over the Maine Legislature’s failure to convene over the summer and touted her role in co-authoring the Paycheck Protection Program, a massive small business loan program embedded in past stimulus bills.

Gideon countered that legislative Republicans got “caught up in politics” in refusing to respond to a poll about returning for a session. She decried the lack of federal leadership on coronavirus response and pointed to Collins’ refusal to say whether she supports Trump. Savage, a former Green candidate running as an independent, reiterated her support for a “people’s bailout” including monthly $2,000 payments for families.

On health care, Gideon defended her preferred public option, saying she would support increasing Medicare reimbursement rates, which addresses a common criticism that the proposed health care program would create financial issues for rural hospitals.

“Rural hospitals would not be put more at risk,” Gideon said.

The Democrat also criticized Collins over the Republican senator’s 2017 vote for a tax bill that has become the basis for a lawsuit aiming to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Collins defended her record on the ACA, noting she was one of three Republicans who broke with her party to block a legislative attempt to repeal the law in 2017.

Savage outlined her support for Medicare for All, the government-run health insurance plan championed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, while Linn said his plan was similar to Gideon’s but pivoted to a critique of the two-party system.

On climate change, Savage expressed her support for what she has called a Demilitarized Green New Deal, which includes provisions to move to aggressive production of renewable energy technologies instead of military equipment. Gideon, who does not support the Green New Deal, highlighted her record in the state Legislature, where lawmakers passed goals for renewable energy generation and carbon emissions last year.

Collins argued that Gideon would support a new tax on heating oil. Gideon backed a carbon tax bill in the Legislature that went nowhere, but has said she does not support such a tax now, saying in the debate that Collins was “saying something that is false.”

That was an extension of weeks that both Collins and Gideon have spent decrying what they say are false attacks as the Senate race has been marked by record levels of outside spending, totaling nearly $70 million as of Thursday, according to federal data.

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