After Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a promise during a Fox News interview: “Senator Collins will be well funded, I can assure you.”
Maybe not well funded enough.
On Thursday, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, the most likely Democratic challenger to Collins, revealed she raised a whopping $9 million in the second quarter. Oh, and Gideon is set to receive an additional $3.5 million or more after she (presumably) wins the Democratic primary in the middle of July. A Federal Election Commission report filed that night showed Gideon with $5.5 million in the bank as of June 24.
Gideon’s financial advantage over Collins, who reported $5 million cash on hand, doesn’t guarantee a victory over the three-term Republican, who not long ago remained astronomically popular in the state and is working to frame the race as a battle between a shaky upstart and a battle-tested veteran. But the Democrat’s financial advantage is the starkest example of the Trump-fueled wave of progressive energy and small-dollar donor cash that now threatens Collins ― and her party’s majority in the Senate.
“This is the hardest race Sen. Collins will ever have,” said Toby McGrath, a Democratic strategist who worked on President Barack Obama’s campaigns in the state and for independent Sen. Angus King, noting most public polls now show a toss-up race. “Single digits is not a place she’s ever been.”
National Republican strategists expect FEC reports released in the coming weeks to reveal nearly every incumbent Republican senator in a swing state, with the likely exception of Texas Sen. John Cornyn, to be outraised by their Democratic challenger in the second quarter. Many were alarmed when ActBlue, the preferred fundraising hub for Democrats and liberal groups, announced it had processed $392 million worth of donations in June.
Republicans hold a 53-47 advantage in the Senate, and Democrats have already reserved millions of dollars’ worth of airtime to attack GOP-held seats in Maine, Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, Iowa and Montana, while Republicans are targeting Democrat-held seats in Alabama and Michigan. Strategists in both parties agree President Donald Trump’s slip in the polls, directly tied to his mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic and divisive rhetoric about the Black Lives Matter movement, has only increased Democrats’ chances of winning the upper chamber.
The most recent sign of the GOP’s deteriorating position came on Thursday, when the National Republican Senatorial Committee, already playing defense across the country, booked $2 million worth of airtime for later this month in Georgia, an expensive state where two GOP-held seats are up for grabs.
But the cash problem may be most prominent in Maine, a state crucial to Republican hopes of keeping McConnell as a majority leader. The list of GOP Senate candidates who can win their states at the same time as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is short, and Collins may be the only name on it.
National Republican groups, including the NRSC and the McConnell-linked Senate Leadership Fund, are holding their own with their Democratic counterparts. But candidates are able to buy television ads at lower rates, giving Democrats a vital advantage.
Gideon, who has only marginal competition in the July 14 primary, is set to receive between $3.5 million and $4 million from a fund raised for Collins’ challenger during the battle over Kavanaugh’s nomination in 2018. (The exact amount is unclear, since her campaign will need to make sure no donor maxed out to both the fund and her campaign.)
That will only supercharge the already saturated and typically sleepy television markets in Portland and Bangor, Maine, which have seen general election levels of spending since January. Outside Democratic groups have already spent nearly $14 million on the race, while Republican groups have spent $10 million. Most of that spending has come from groups linked to McConnell or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and a significant chunk has come from political nonprofit groups that do not need to ever disclose their donors.
McGrath gave Democrats credit for spending early to start defining Collins, who swatted away a challenger six years ago by a margin of 37 percentage points and has maintained high levels of popularity.
“It’s a different game than it used to be in Maine,” he said. “You need to give a pretty good reason to get rid of an incumbent. That couldn’t be a short conversation. They got started early.”
That long conversation has focused on convincing Mainers that Collins isn’t the Senator they eagerly reelected in 2008 and 2014 and is instead a tool of corporate malefactors like the pharmaceutical industry and Wall Street. One recent ad, from the Democratic group End Citizens United, highlighted that Collins had “taken the most corporate PAC money in Maine history.”
“Money changes everything, even Susan Collins,” the narrator declares at the end of the 30-second ad. Another ad, from VoteVets, features the wife of a veteran who battled opioid addiction declaring: “Washington’s changed her. All she cares about is money.”
Democrats are receiving plenty of backup from interest groups. Groups like Planned Parenthood, the League of Conservation Voters and Everytown for Gun Safety, which backed Collins in the past, have endorsed Gideon in 2020. Most notably, King ― an immensely popular former governor who now caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate ― said last month he would likely stay neutral after backing Collins in 2014.
“I think the people of Maine can figure out how to vote without my guidance,” King told Maine Public Radio.
Without the assistance of the outside groups who donated money to her and vouched for her moderate credentials in the past, Collins has turned donors in the conservative legal movement who pushed Kavanaugh’s nomination, and has tried to build an online fundraising program.
Her effort to woo small-dollar donors has shown some success. In the most recent fundraising period, she brought in 28% of her cash from donors who gave less than $200, compared to just 8% before that. That still pales in comparison to Gideon, who has brought in nearly 40% of her cash in smaller increments.
If the Democrats’ early spending and the impeachment saga were able to bring Collins down to unprecedented lows, the GOP strategy since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic has kept her afloat ― and potentially ahead of Gideon.
Advertisements from a super PAC controlled by McConnell, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and from Collins’ campaign have all argued the veteran senator is using her seniority to limit Maine’s economic pain during the pandemic. In particular, they’ve emphasized Collins’ role in shaping the Paycheck Protection Program, which, while flawed, remains popular in the state and nationally.
At the same time, after months of mostly defending Collins, Republican groups have begun to mount a more sustained offensive against Gideon’s reputation, and have begun to drive up her negative numbers. They’ve focused primarily on sullying her tenure as speaker, trying to turn what could be a fresh Democratic face into just another politician.
An attack ad from the NRSC, for instance, slams Gideon’s handling of a sexual harassment case in the Legislature. An ad from Collins’ campaign claims Gideon “did nothing” to help fix the state’s overwhelmed unemployment system during the pandemic.
“Sara Gideon. Now’s not the time to take that risk,” a narrator says at the end of one NRSC ad.
“Sara spent the past 107 days calling out-of-state billionaires, raising money for her Senate campaign, while Maine’s unemployment system cratered. Thousands of Maine people lost their jobs and they couldn’t get help from the state,” said Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Collins’ campaign. “Maine people appreciate that Susan Collins has been on the job.”
The pandemic has shifted the campaign in other ways. Before the virus put a stop to essentially all in-person campaigning, the Gideon campaign was holding meet-and-greets throughout the state, hoping to take advantage of Collins’ need to spend weeks at a time in Washington.
And some Democratic operatives have privately worried about whether the state’s college students will return in the fall, which could eliminate several thousand potential Gideon voters from what is otherwise the oldest state in the nation.
Collins’ biggest problems, however, remain two intensely polarizing Republican men: Trump, who is unpopular in Maine, and Kavanaugh.
Collins still refuses to say whether she plans to vote for the first man in November, and has yet to reveal if she backed him in Maine’s March presidential primary. Her vote for the latter man was the last straw for many of the suburban voters and liberal interest groups that had previously trusted her to be bipartisan.
And both men have delivered fundraising opportunities to Gideon’s campaign and headaches to Collins’ in recent weeks. The Trump administration continued its legal push to repeal the Affordable Care Act in its entirety based on the 2017 tax cut Collins voted for after voting against the repeal of the ACA earlier that year.
And on Tuesday, Kavanaugh sided with the Supreme Court’s other conservatives on a dissent in an important abortion rights case, ignoring a recent precedent, after Collins had previously said the judge would respect both precedent and the ruling in Roe v. Wade. Collins and her campaign argued the case had nothing to do with Roe, but Gideon pounced nonetheless.
Kavanaugh “did the exact opposite of what Susan Collins professed over and over again that she was sure that he would do, and that is respecting the precedent of Roe v. Wade,” Gideon said on Tuesday night, during an appearance with Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America ― yet another group that had once backed Collins.