There’s a reason, besides the pie, that cars were lined up to get into the parking lot of the American Legion hall in Kennebunkport, Maine, on a chilly night this week, and her name is Sara Gideon.
The Democratic state House speaker wants to unseat Republican Susan Collins, who has served the people of Maine as senator since 1997. Her event on Monday, exactly 365 days before the 2020 election, drew nearly 100 people to hear Gideon make her case.
A Democratic win in Maine is potentially key to flipping the Senate in 2020. Gideon has already attracted backing from national Democrats. She raised more than $1 million in a week after launching her campaign and has outraised most other Democratic Senate challengers with the exception of Arizona’s Mark Kelly, the astronaut husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and Amy McGrath, who aims to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
Riding on growing distrust of Collins, Gideon is framing her opponent as someone who no longer represents the interests of Mainers. Over the course of her 22-year career in the Senate, Collins has built a reputation for being a moderate. She said she didn’t vote for President Donald Trump in 2016, but she’s disappointed those on the left since he took office when she voted for the Republican tax bill and — most infamously in her critics’ eyes — by voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
But Gideon has an uphill battle. Despite her 10 years in public service and her campaign’s growing momentum, very few of her potential voters have heard her speak before, besides in her TV ads. The American Legion talk was her biggest campaign event to date, and Gideon, 47, used the opportunity to introduce herself.
The mom of three, a Rhode Island native, lives in Freeport, about an hour north of Kennebunkport. Her father is an Indian immigrant and her maternal grandparents came to the United States as toddlers, escaping the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. It was her husband, Ben, who was first recruited to run for the Freeport Town Council in 2009, she tells her audiences. But Gideon decided she was better suited for the job. Now, she’s served nearly four terms in the state House, the last two as speaker.
“For the past four months now, in addition to those beloved and important roles in my life, every day when I wake up, I remind myself that my new job and my most important job is to challenge Susan Collins to be our next US senator,” she said at the American Legion hall.
The crowd cheered. There was an energy in the room that’s been building over the past three years. Trump’s unexpected 2016 win and handling of the presidency since has unleashed a new determination among previously casual voters to get politically involved, to show up at town halls, to donate to campaigns out of state.
“I liked Susan Collins. I’ve always admired her, often times when she voted or spoke on an issue I actually agreed with her,” said Donna Gaylor, a lifelong Democrat from the nearby coastal town of Wells.
“But I truly felt that she started to fence-sit on some things and waited to see where the wind was blowing, so to speak, where her party was going,” she said, adding that she lost respect for the senator when she voted for the Republican tax bill and then for Kavanaugh.
“I just can’t believe that she didn’t understand the ramifications of that,” Gaylor said.