Sen. Susan Collins listens as Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon responds to a question during the Decision Maine debate in Portland on Sept. 11. Credit: Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and House Speaker Sara Gideon took opposing views of the effect of a conservative Supreme Court while dividing on issues including health care in their only one-on-one debate before Election Day in their massive race.

Wednesday night’s debate, hosted by WMTW, was both the final one of the race and first time the pair met without independent longshots Max Linn and Lisa Savage. It came after more than 417,000 Maine voters have already cast their ballots, according to state data. The race will use ranked-choice voting if no candidate finishes with more than 50 percent of first-round votes.

Polling in the race has been tight, with Gideon holding a narrow but steady lead in independent public polls. A Colby College survey released Wednesday showed the Democrat leading Collins, a fourth-term Republican, but that narrow gap was within the survey’s margin of error. The race could determine party control of the U.S. Senate and it has drawn $170 million in spending, smashing previous Maine records.

The incumbent dug into Gideon from her opening statement, turning a Democratic argument on health care around on the House speaker by arguing that Gideon’s proposed public option would hurt rural hospitals. Gideon, who has made health care a central issue of her campaign recently with the slogan “health care is on the ballot,” has argued for higher federal reimbursement rates to assuage those types of concerns.

Collins noted that she opposed a Republican lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act that the Supreme Court will hear after the election. If the law were repealed, she said she would try to reinstate many of its key provisions. Gideon highlighted Collins’ vote for a 2017 tax bill that became the basis of that lawsuit while highlighting her work in the Legislature to put portions of the health care law into Maine law.

The pair both articulated support for Roe vs. Wade, the landmark abortion-rights case, with Collins saying she thought the Supreme Court would not overturn the decision. Gideon raised concerns about Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s public opposition to abortion while criticizing Collins for confirming Barrett to a lower court in 2017. Collins, who was the only Republican to oppose Barrett over process concerns, argued lower court judges were bound by precedent.

In a later exchange, Collins criticized Gideon after she did not explicitly reject “court packing” — or adding justices to the Supreme Court. Gideon argued Republicans had already packed the court by pushing through an unprecedented number of conservative judges during President Donald Trump’s first term.

Collins, who denounced President Donald Trump ahead of the 2016 election but has repeatedly declined to say whether she supports him this year, said again that she did not plan to get involved with presidential politics.

“What I don’t want to see is one party control in Washington, because I think that would lead to a far-left agenda being pushed through the Congress,” Collins said.

Gideon was critical of Trump over his response to the coronavirus pandemic, noting that 227,000 Americans have died while Trump said he initially downplayed the virus. She criticized Collins for calling the president’s approach “uneven.”

On the coronavirus response, Collins highlighted her work on the Paycheck Protection Program, a $669 billion program that provided forgivable loans to small businesses, while hitting Gideon over the Maine Legislature’s mid-March adjournment. Gideon said she was proud of the work that the Legislature did before it adjourned and called for more federal aid, while blaming Republican legislators for not responding to polls to come back for a session this summer.

Both candidates called for additional federal aid, including aid to state and local governments, while Gideon also highlighted hazard pay for essential workers while Collins called for another round of small business loans.

Collins criticized Democrats for batting down a smaller Republican stimulus proposal while putting forward a package that included unrelated provisions, while Gideon tied Congress’s inability to pass a bill back to the Republican-controlled Senate.

In response to a question about racism, Collins said she did not think the phrase “Black Lives Matter” should be “controversial” but denied that systemic racism was a problem in Maine. She highlighted her support from law enforcement groups and backing of a Senate bill that would have offered incentives for local police departments to change certain tactics.

Gideon also called for changes to law enforcement practices, including banning chokeholds and instituting racial bias training. She said that systemic racism was a problem, pointing to Maine’s disproportionate coronavirus cases rates among people of color. 

“It doesn’t matter how white our state is, it still exists,” Gideon said.