On November 4, 2020, Democratic State House Speaker Sara Gideon conceded to incumbent Republican Senator Susan Collins in one of the closest watched and most expensive Senate races in 2020. Collins was supposed to be vulnerable this time; despite her much-touted moderate credentials, she had confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and voted with Trump the majority of the time, and there was widespread support for new leadership in the state of Maine. Yet she won the race by 8 percent, beating Gideon even in areas that Joe Biden carried. What went wrong for Gideon?
Gideon’s loss can be chalked up to three interrelated factors: influence from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), an inability to connect with Mainers and mobilize independent and undecided voters, and a lack of broad support from local grassroots and progressive movements. As an organizer with environmental coalitions in Maine, I saw firsthand how this election underscored the importance of locally rooted campaigns.
Before the Senate primaries earlier in 2020, the DSCC gave early endorsements to candidates in at least seven states that had vulnerable Republican senators, including Maine, Arizona, Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, and Colorado. They poured millions into these primary races, boosting candidates like Gideon who fit a moderate formula. According to a staffer for the Gideon campaign, the DSCC advised their candidates not to attend any pre-primary debates and to avoid committing to any progressive policies. This strategy failed: as of November 9, 2020, the only DSCC-backed candidates to win in those seven states were Mark Kelly in Arizona, who was unopposed in his primary, and John Hickenlooper in Colorado.
The influence of national leadership limited local participation from the start of the primaries. Gideon was labeled as the favored candidate of the Maine Democratic Party and endorsed by national organizations like Planned Parenthood and Moms Demand Action. Some smaller local groups, like Maine Youth for Climate Justice, a group I organize with, endorsed Betsy Sweet, a progressive who ran her grassroots campaign on Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, but our favored candidate was massively outspent. Anna Siegel, a youth organizer in Maine, said, “Betsy Sweet didn’t win [the primary] because of Citizens United and the DNC funneling money from out of state. The race was over before it even began.”
Sweet emphasized local connection throughout her campaign. “People here want to know their candidates,” she told me. “They want their lives and experiences to matter. When you have a process that limits interaction from Mainers, it doesn’t work. It was a losing strategy from the beginning.” Sweet had difficulty rallying support, she said, because “national organizations had pressure from Washington to choose a candidate who Washington said was electable, not a candidate who was good on the issues they care about. Guidance was coming from people who don’t know about our state.”
Democrats from outside the state failed to see, for example, the importance of fielding a candidate who wasn’t from southern Maine, which is generally wealthier and more progressive and often differs in political opinion and practice from the rest of the state. As Jim Fossel of the Portland Press Herald remarked, “liberal southern Maine Democrats aren’t suitable candidates for statewide office. There have only been a few exceptions to that rule over the past 50 years, and they had much stronger ties to the state than Gideon, a fairly recent transplant.” Gideon, who was born in Rhode Island and moved to southern Maine sixteen years ago, was no match for Collins, a fifth-generation Mainer from the heart of potato country.
The Maine Democratic Party has never run a candidate from Maine’s Second Congressional District, which covers the northern part of the state, against Collins, who is also from that district. In the eyes of some community leaders, making that change is vital to winning Collins’s seat. Jonathan Fulford, who ran a progressive campaign in 2014 for a state senate seat in Waldo County in the Second District, said that he received a lot of support from independent voters who were looking for change: “What was unique was that they were communicated to by someone who was working class and who they could relate to. It would be a mistake to think that wasn’t a factor.” He blames his loss (by just 135 votes) on a lack of support from the Maine Democratic Party; his opponent had a full-time staff member from the Republican Party working on his campaign, whereas Fulford had to make do with volunteers.
Collins’s campaign tactics solidified her reputation as a true Mainer. While the Gideon campaign relied on ads and phone banking, “Collins was at every groundbreaking, every ceremony, every event from ribbon cuttings of new buildings to Girl Scout gatherings,” according to Siegel. “Gideon’s strategy may work in places like New York City, but not in Maine, where word-of-mouth is powerful and relational organizing is key to win voters in the upper reaches of the state.”
After winning the primary, Gideon continued to run as a moderate candidate with no strong commitments or plans for policy in Washington. Much like the Democrats’ strategy for the presidential election, the race focused on getting Collins out of office, not on electing Gideon. Sirohi Kumar, a young climate and racial justice activist in Bar Harbor, was frustrated with the lack of outreach from the Gideon campaign about issues that were important to her. “No one knew what their platform was,” she said. “I knew what Gideon wasn’t for: she didn’t want healthcare for all, or a Green New Deal. Sara Gideon wasn’t a palatable alternative to Collins because she didn’t have any flavor.”
This lack of commitment to policies harmed the campaign’s attempt to swing undecided and independent voters, who make up the largest bloc in the state. Lenoir Kelley, an intern with the Gideon campaign, reflected on her experience speaking with voters in Somerset, a northern county that overwhelmingly voted for Collins: “I had a conversation with one undecided voter for twenty minutes. He identified as an independent, like many Maine voters, and was already committed to voting for Joe Biden and Jared Golden.” (Golden, the incumbent Democrat up for re-election in Maine’s Second Congressional District, won his race against challenger Dale Crafts by a wide margin.)
When asked about the Senate race, Kelley recalled that the undecided voter said he “didn’t like either of them,” but that Gideon didn’t seem like a distinct change from Collins. “He said, ‘They’re both career politicians taking money from corporations. . . . This country is founded on independence. I am an independent; I don’t side with either party, but it feels like Susan is more independent than Sara is.’” Because Collins hadn’t done anything “too terrible” in voters’ eyes, Kelley argued, they did not want to risk voting for someone whose policies were unclear and who took money from out of state. “People need a big push to change, because change is a risk,” said Kelley.
Nationally, Democrats spent about a billion dollars on Senate races that polls said they could win but that they ended up losing. The Gideon campaign raised over $69 million, and an additional $100 million was spent by outside PACs and nonprofits. Residents were bombarded with attack ads, phone bankers, and endless mailings urging them to vote. These tactics played against Gideon. Collins was quick to point to “an endless flow of money coming into the state of Maine by people who didn’t care about the state of Maine, but about trying to flip control of the Senate.” In reality, negative attack ads came from both sides, and ads from the Collins campaign certainly harmed Gideon.
The way resources were spent by the Gideon campaign within the state were also flawed. “Senior campaign people were from out of state and lived in fancy apartments in Portland,” said Kelley, who organized in northern Maine, where there was less allocation of senior staff. After one senior campaign official expressed their pity for Kelley having to organize where there were more conservative voters, she recalled thinking, “They just don’t understand what is needed in the state to win.” With flawed financial strategies, the Democratic Party proved that money can’t win elections in Maine—and that, in fact, too much of it coming from out of state can lose them.
This focus on fundraising over coalition-building was a pattern repeated nationwide in 2020. After the DSCC-backed candidate Amy McGrath beat grassroots-championed Charles Booker in the Kentucky Democratic primary, for example, there was little to no effort to mobilize progressive constituencies in the general election. Siegel, an organizer with Maine Youth for Climate Justice, which represents seventeen climate organizations and over 250 young people fighting for climate action in Maine, saw the effects of that neglect in the campaign. “I saw in youth organizing spaces that individuals, including myself, were simply not comfortable directly supporting a candidate with vague climate policies, noncommittal promises, and her [rumored] personal investments in stocks of Nestle and Shell Oil,” she said. “To excite youth, one must make bold moves and paint a vision of a better future, with a policy road map to get there.” Siegel used the Biden campaign as an example:
No youth organizer was excited about him. But once he collaborated with youth and students from Sunrise on his revised and newest climate plan, we rallied and we came together. At one point, that climate plan was more popular than Biden himself, with 66 percent of those polled in agreement that those measures to reduce emissions were necessary.
Gideon’s failure to mobilize grassroots movements was not for lack of effort on the activists’ part. Groups like Maine Youth for Climate Justice attempted to work with the Gideon campaign from the beginning. All primary candidates for the Senate seat were invited to their virtual candidate forum in April around Earth Day. The only two candidates to refuse to attend were Collins and Gideon. “When we reached out to the Gideon campaign, they told us she was not participating in any candidate forums at that time,” Siegel said. “We offered options, then stopped receiving responses. How can voters support a candidate if they don’t understand their policies? The over 2,000 people that came to our candidate forum knew that Gideon wasn’t there.”
In September, a representative from the Gideon campaign reached out to Siegel and Maine Youth for Climate Justice to set up a meeting. Emails were exchanged, “but then it never happened,” Siegel said. “What we were planning to do for other Senate candidates—mass phone banking and social media campaigns—we could’ve done for her, if the campaign had communicated with us.”
Broader issues that were out of the campaign’s control also had an impact on the result. The COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person gatherings and canvassing, vital components of any political race, especially against incumbent politicians. The Republican Party had looser restrictions on their campaign staff and were out canvassing weeks before the Democrats. Additionally, some campaign staff theorized that a number of voters may have decided to vote for Collins as a “check” on the Democratic Party after Biden became a clear favorite to win the presidential election.
Despite the disappointment, there were rays of hope in the Senate campaign. In 2014, Collins beat Democrat Shenna Bellows with 67 percent of the vote. Maine, which now has ranked-choice voting, only gave Collins 51 percent of the vote this time around, compared to Gideon’s with 42 percent. If Collins had received under 50 percent of the vote, Gideon would have had an even closer margin, likely gaining around 5 percentage points.
Gideon is a gifted politician with strong views on women’s rights, the economy, the climate, and the future of Maine. Many progressives, like Siegel, have supported her work as Speaker of the Maine State House. Yet in this race, her political skills and ideas were hampered by national party institutions and the misallocation of funds from out of state. With different strategies and clearer policies, Gideon could have won this race.
So what should the Maine Democrats do now? It is clear that elections cannot be bought in the state of Maine. Putting working-class candidates on the ballot could provide a path to victory—people who represent lower-income, northern, and rural Mainers, especially where precarious occupations such as lobstering and recreation dominate the economy. Candidates who meaningfully engage with the many activists in the state as well as with policies such as Medicare for All, which are broadly popular with independents, might make voting out someone like Collins seem like a risk worth taking. In short, as Fulford put it, “We need a lobsterwoman AOC.”
Ania Wright is a Grassroots Climate Action Organizer with the Sierra Club Maine Chapter. She is a lifelong Mainer.