The annual True Blue North Dinner to raise money for the Piscataquis County Democratic Committee was held recently at the East Sangerville Grange Hall, built in 1904 and still going strong. Steve Collins/Sun Journal 

SANGERVILLE — For a few hours recently, the 115-year-old East Sangerville Grange Hall, one of those classic white clapboard New England structures, stood at the center of what may prove the most important U.S. Senate race in the nation.

That mid-October Saturday night marked the first time each of the Maine Democratic Party’s Senate contenders gathered under the same roof to make the case that they ought to be the party’s choice to take on four-term Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. Whether Collins wins or not is likely to prove pivotal to control of Congress.

The building was the site of the Piscataquis County Democratic Committee’s annual True Blue North Dinner, and the challengers came out swinging, sometimes taking aim at Collins but also targeting the front-runner, state House Speaker Sara Gideon, anointed by power brokers in Washington as their chosen standard bearer.

State House Speaker Sara Gideon carves ham slices at the True Blue North Dinner, a Democratic fundraiser at the East Sangerville Grange Hall, which drew all of the active Democratic contenders for the Maine U.S. Senate seat up for grabs next year. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Gideon, a Freeport Democrat backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Emily’s List, is far ahead in fundraising, but to get the chance to take on Collins she’s going to have to win over rank-and-file party members throughout the Pine Tree State.

From the looks of it, she won’t have it easy.

There are a fair number of Democrats who aren’t too keen on having folks from away tell them who they should pick in next June’s primary, when Gideon will face Hallowell activist Betsy Sweet and Saco lawyer Bre Kidman.

“We can’t afford to buy the election the way that Sara is adeptly showing that she can and will,” Kidman told the crowd in Sangerville. “None of us have spent even half of what Sara has spent on Facebook alone. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t matter.”

Sweet, who lost a gubernatorial bid last year, said Mainers need to reject the notion that money can buy an election.

“We have to win this race kitchen table to kitchen table, Grange hall to Grange hall, back of truck to back of truck,” she said, insisting that Democrats can only defeat Collins by rounding up enough independents and young people to fight back against moneyed interests.

“This is going to take all of us,” Sweet said. “This is not going to be a couple of people in Augusta or Washington deciding.”

Gideon recognizes the risk she faces, but she also sees a necessity in having the cash to compete on a reasonably level playing field.

She told diners that the balance of power in the Senate will likely depend on whether Collins wins reelection or not, one reason Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held a $5,600-a-head fundraiser in the nation’s capital for Collins last week.

In short, Gideon said, Maine’s U.S. Senate race “means everything.”

“Every path to taking over the Senate runs through Maine,” said Kathleen Marra, the state Democratic Party chairwoman. “We have to defeat Susan Collins.”

Maine Democratic Chairwoman Kathleen Marra. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Sweet said that by the time it’s all over, candidates, parties and outside interests may spend as much as $150 million in Maine during the campaign — more than $100 per Mainer.

Yet despite the importance of the race on a national level, candidates and party leaders said it’s not going to be won or lost because of warring television commercials or the vast piles of money pouring into Maine from across the land.

They said Collins, who has stockpiled more than $7 million for her campaign, is a formidable foe, an incumbent who has swatted away challengers by larger margins in every race, a towering figure on the national political scene who has portrayed herself as a moderate for years and has strong allies throughout the state.

Some polls suggest she’s more vulnerable than ever this time around — a consequence of the polarized politics surrounding President Donald Trump — but Democrats said it would be a mistake to assume she can be swept out of office easily.

They hope, though, that 2018’s Blue Wave that swept Republicans from control of the U.S. House — and helped install Democrat Jared Golden in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District seat over an incumbent Republican — will roll on into 2020 and wash away Trump, Collins and the GOP’s grip on the nation.

“Simply voting isn’t enough this time around,” Marra said. “This isn’t just any election this time. It’s a movement.”

U.S. Senate hopeful Bre Kidman at a Democratic dinner in Sangerville. Steve Collins

Gideon, who has $2.8 million on hand in her campaign treasury, said Democrats are going to pull it off.

“We are going to defeat this woman and we are going to take control of the United States Senate,” she said.

While Democrats decide whom to nominate, Collins “remains focused on the job that Mainers overwhelmingly elected her to do,” her campaign spokesman, Kevin Kelley, said.

“They say those who walk in the middle of the road get hit from both sides, and Sen. Collins is constantly taking hits from the far left and the far right, but she has always stood strong in the center because that’s where she believes the majority of Mainers reside,” he said.

 

FAR FROM ANY WAVES IN SANGERVILLE

Piscataquis County’s entire population — 17,535 as of the last Census — is less than the number of people who live in Auburn. It’s almost entirely rural, with many residents mired in poverty.

Yet there is also a keen sense of community.

A former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford said one of the things he likes about the place is that residents often leave their keys in the car, sometimes with the engine running. They’re trusting, he said, and besides, a stranger behind the wheel would draw suspicion right away since everyone knows who drives what vehicle.

It is, in short, a long, long way from the nation’s capital that Ford fled in his retirement.

Democrats in the county, who are greatly outnumbered by Republicans, are making inroads with “a wonderfully organized” effort that has rejuvenated the party, said Rusty Willette, who led the Piscataquis County Democratic Committee decades ago.

Carole Boothroyd of Dover-Foxcroft heads the Democrats’ outreach and education program that hopes to engage residents who may not be fans of the party generally.

Margarita Contreni, chairwoman of the Piscataquis County Democratic Committee, left, poses with U.S. Senate contender Betsy Sweet at a recent political party dinner in Sangerville. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

After batting around a lot of ideas, she said, the committee began holding monthly meetings focused each time on a different liberty embraced by the Bill of Rights, something that all Americans can get behind and see the value of defending.

Margarita Contreni, chairwoman of the Piscataquis County Democratic Committee, said the party has a monthly newsletter placed in a weekly publication that goes out free to every resident, a way “to gain visibility and advocate for the policies we feel strongly about.”

Rollin Thurlow of Atkinson said the county’s Democrats are making progress.

“Everybody’s quite enthusiastic about pushing the Democratic agenda,” he said.

Even so, Contreni said, it’s been a couple of decades since a Democrat from the county won a state legislative seat. But, she said, they’re getting ever closer.

Richard Evans, a surgeon in Dover-Foxcroft, said he got more than 47% of the vote in a state House race in 2018, an indication of progress.

He said there are a lot of people in the area who “feel alone and isolated, like nobody’s listening to them.” They’ve lost hope, Evans said, and that winds up impacting both their health and their politics.

Evans said Democrats are fighting for a more inclusive society, one that doesn’t leave anyone on the sidelines and ensures that everybody who needs help can get it. That’s how they’re going to rally voters to their side, he said.

“This is prime time for grass roots,” said Yvette Simpson, who heads Democracy for America, a group backing Sweet. “We know we’ve got a real race here.”

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden addressed Democrats at the Piscataquis County Democratic Committee’s annual fundraising dinner at the East Sangerville Grange Hall. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

 

DEMOCRATS IN A GRANGE HALL

Despite the paucity of Democrats in Piscataquis County, the party’s three U.S. Senate hopefuls saw good reason to try to round up votes there.

Golden, a Lewiston Democrat, said his victory last year against incumbent Bruce Poliquin offers them a road map.

“We won without a Blue Wave,” he said, grinding out a victory through hard work that took his campaign all over the sprawling district, reaching out to every voter, including GOP ones, to talk about issues and listen to their concerns, ideas and values.

U.S. Senate candidate Betsy Sweet, left, and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden look out at the diners gathered for the True Blue North Dinner in Piscataquis County recently. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

He said Democrats need to make the case to everyday Mainers that they should “join us” instead of supporting Republicans who won’t protect their health care or their jobs.

Marra said Democrats are trying to build a greater sense of community, where “we look out for each other.”

She said the U.S. Senate primary offers more opportunity to make progress.

Marra said the Maine party never takes sides in a primary so it isn’t siding with the groups in Washington endorsing Gideon. Besides, she said, she’s not convinced that clearing the field is even the right strategy.

“We believe in a robust primary,” Marra said. “That can never hurt anyone.”

Golden said it was good they could all come together in a lovely place, where he joined the Senate contenders to serve up homemade dishes to everyone who came.

 

WHAT BETSY SWEET HAD TO SAY

In an animated, passionate address, Sweet called on Democrats to embrace her take on campaigning.

“We can’t govern without getting out and talking to every single person in Maine, talking about what their frustrations are, what their hopes are, what they want from a United States senator, and the direction they think this country should go,” she said.

“And that’s not going to happen by raising a lot of money and putting a lot of ads on TV,” Sweet said. “That’s going to happen by talking to people.”

Sweet, who has $88,000 available for her campaign, said the country is at “a pivotal point in our democracy,” with “the very foundation of our democracy crumbling” as the president engages in one constitutional violation after another.

She said Americans need to decide “who we are, who we are as people,” whether they’re going to live in fear of one another, supporting restrictions and secrecy, in a bid for safety.

“Or are we going to appeal to the best of us, to our big hearts, to our care for one another, to the communities that we love? You know, people are so hungry for connection. They’re hungry to talk to one another. They’re hungry to do this,” Sweet said.

Sweet said she worries that nothing can move forward “until we get money out of politics,” denouncing the prospect of a Senate race she estimated will cost $100 million to $150 million as obscene.

“C’mon, we are better than that,” she said. “We have got to say no, no, no, we’re not going to do it this way. Are we holding elections or are we holding auctions? Because auctions go to the highest bidder.”

Sweet said Collins should “stop flitting around the country and going and raising your millions of dollars. Go to Washington and do your damn job. That’s what we need from a United States senator.”

 

WHAT BRE KIDMAN HAD TO SAY

For a nonbinary contender who has performed on stage as a mermaid covered in glitter and this month was wrapped in caution tape outside the U.S. Supreme Court, Kidman was notably low-key addressing the Democrats in Sangerville.

Kidman said running for public office had never been in the works.

“This was not part of my life plan. I have green hair,” the attorney said.

But anger over Collins’ support for Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court — an anger the three Democrats share — spurred a choice to get in the race, Kidman said.

Kidman, who has $6,000 in a campaign account, expressed concern that Gideon has raised millions, leaving her challengers to “look like nothing, like footnotes” with what amounts to chump change in comparison.

“The current system believes that buying the election is the only way,” Kidman said. “And, simply put, we can’t afford to buy the election the way that Sara is adeptly showing that she can and will. None of us have spent even half of what Sara has spent on Facebook alone. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t matter.”

Kidman said Democrats need to show they can’t be bought.

“We’re not going to beat Susan Collins unless we stand by our values,” Kidman said.

 

WHAT SARA GIDEON HAD TO SAY

Wherever she goes, Gideon said, people ask her, “What happened to Susan Collins?”

She said Mainers feel as if Collins is letting them down, leaving them behind, supporting the tax cut bill, Kavanaugh and repeal of the individual mandate.

Collins readily defends each of those votes, insisting she’s as committed to representing Mainers today as she has always been. It’s the political environment that’s changed, not her, her supporters said.

Gideon sought to explain why so much money is reaching her coffers, most of it from people outside Maine.

“This race matters to more than just the 1.3 million people in Maine,” she said. “This race matters to our country because no matter what happens in that 2020 Democratic presidential election, we cannot afford to have a United States Senate in the control of Mitch McConnell.”

“We have seen what he does with this president and how he props him up. He has literally reduced the United States Senate to a rubber stamp for judicial nominees and appointees of this president,” Gideon said.

“If we want to change that balance of power in the United States Senate, it has to include the state of Maine,” she said.

Even if she wins and the Democrats still fail to capture the Senate, Gideon said, her experience working with former Gov. Paul LePage will come in handy. “I do know how to stand up to a bully,” she said. “I had to stand up to that man for six years.”

She said that defeating Collins is going to cost “a lot of money” and she’s focused on fundraising as a result “because I am determined to win this race.”

Questioned about the money, Gideon declared it won’t have an impact on her views.

“I will not be bought,” she said.

Gideon said her challengers are “wonderful, smart, accomplished” people, so Democrats need to be on guard not to let anyone “put wedges” between them

 

THE OTHER CANDIDATES

Collins, who has held her seat since winning a 1996 election, is raising money and running hard.

But it’s not yet a given that she’s going to stay in the race.

Earlier in the year, Collins repeatedly said she would announce after Labor Day or sometime this fall whether she intends to seek a fifth term. So far, there’s been no word from her about that declaration.

View north from the front of the East Sangerville Grange Hall. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

If she runs and wins again she will be among a few of the most senior Republicans in a body that apportions power in large part by seniority.

Beyond the two major parties, there is a Green Independent Party candidate, Lisa Savage of Solon, and an independent in the race, Danielle VanHelsing of Sangerville, who ran for a time in the 2nd Congressional District race last year but didn’t succeed in securing a spot on the ballot.

Another independent, Tiffany Bond of Portland, has talked seriously about running against Collins as well. She was one of two unaffiliated candidates in the 2nd District race until the end, coming well short of victory, but her voters helped nudge Golden over the top when ranked-choice ballots were counted.

Savage said Maine’s ranked-choice voting offers “a game-changer” for alternative candidates because they run without big money behind them and without undermining the chances of anyone else. There is no longer a spoiler effect possible in Maine.

She said her chief gripe with Democrats is that they are “a war party” that consistently supports huge military budgets that go far beyond the country’s legitimate needs.

Savage, a teacher, said her campaign is going to focus on getting out and talking to people.

“Maine is one big small town,” she said, so it’s possible to make the rounds and have a real shot at victory.

That notion that Maine is akin to an overgrown small town is a pervasive one in political circles, driven home by the way nearly everyone seems connected to everybody else somehow.

It may mean something for politics, too, if author Mitch Albom is right.

“Small towns,” he once wrote, “are like metronomes; with the slightest flick, the beat changes.”

Homemade desserts at the True Blue North Dinner. Steve Collins/Sun Journal


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.