Democrat Sara Gideon and Republican Sen. Susan Collins ramped up their public appearances Wednesday, holding socially distanced events the day after Gideon resoundingly won her party’s primary to challenge the long-serving incumbent this fall.

While Gideon was widely expected to win Tuesday’s primary, her margin of victory over two progressive opponents – with 70 percent of the vote, according to incomplete results – showed Maine’s House speaker has strong support among the Democratic base headed into the fall.

The challenge for Gideon will be to expand that support – an effort that will be fueled by an unprecedented amount of cash flowing into her campaign from around the country – among the Democrats and independents who have supported Collins in the past.

So on Wednesday, Gideon began her first day as the Democratic nominee by meeting with lobstermen and veterans – two groups not commonly associated with the liberal side of the political spectrum – as well as advocates for those battling substance use disorders.

“We are going to spend not just the next couple of days but the next 3 ½ of months really focused on getting out everywhere in this state, understanding what has happened for Mainers in these past months, what they need now and how I am able to help them meet the challenges that they have,” Gideon said.

Asked what distinguishes her from Maine’s well-known Republican incumbent, Gideon replied “accessibility” and pointed to her work at the State House “to pick up the pieces where Washington and Senator Collins have failed us.” As an example, Gideon cited state lawmakers’ work to enshrine provisions of the Affordable Care Act at the state level in the face of Republican-led efforts to dismantle the law.

“That’s the kind of leadership you are going to see from me in the Senate,” Gideon said.

Collins, who was unopposed in Tuesday’s Republican primary, spent Wednesday highlighting her role in congressional passage of the coronavirus relief bill that has funneled $2.2 billion in forgivable loans to Maine businesses and self-employed people since April.

The Republican started the day in Gorham, where she toured Moody’s Collision Center and the Jøtul North America factory, where workers manufacture woodstoves. She then met with Portland Police Chief Frank Clark and spoke to officers during a roll call.

The events were billed as official business for the senator, not campaign functions. But Collins’ campaign and her supporters have been touting the senator’s role in the more than $500 billion coronavirus relief package – while creating a “#saradidnothing” hashtag on Twitter – as Collins heads into the toughest reelection battle of her nearly 24-year Senate career.

At Moody’s Collision Center, founded by two-time Maine gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody, Collins was greeted by a friendly audience of employees as she touted her co-authorship of the Paycheck Protection Program to help struggling small businesses weather the pandemic. Moody’s was one of 27,000 Maine businesses that received funds.

As she talked about her work, Collins took a subtle dig at Gideon, although not by name, by saying she was “stunned” that the Maine Legislature adjourned in March and hasn’t returned. Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson are hoping to bring lawmakers back for a special session in August.

Speaking to reporters after a tour of the Jøtul manufacturing facility before lunch, Collins was asked about reelection and said she’s excited that the race is now a head-to-head battle between her and Gideon.

“I look forward to talking about what I want to do for the people of Maine and what I’ve already done for the people of Maine,” Collins said. “There is no one who knows the state of Maine better than I do or fights harder for the people of Maine more than I do. … That’s reflected in my work ethic, my never having missed a roll call vote the entire time that I’ve served in the United State Senate and it’s reflected in my effectiveness in solving problems with common sense solutions for the people of Maine.”

The Collins-Gideon matchup already ranks as the most expensive campaign in Maine history, with the two candidates raising a combined $39 million through late June. And that was before Democratic voters had even officially selected Maine’s 48-year-old House Speaker as their candidate.

Gideon cruised to victory over her two Democratic opponents, lobbyist Betsy Sweet and attorney Bre Kidman, following a yearlong primary campaign that focused almost exclusively on Collins. Republican campaign organizations returned the favor by attacking Gideon on multiple fronts.

Gideon and Collins also will be competing against two independents who have qualified for the November ballot: Lisa Savage, a Green Independent Party member from Solon running as an independent; and Max Linn, a Bar Harbor businessman who had a brief but high-profile campaign for U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket in 2018.

With control of the U.S. Senate at stake, national organizations are expected to flood Maine’s airwaves and other media outlets with ads propping up or tearing down the two candidates. To date, outside groups had spent more than $15 million in Maine, which is likely to be a fraction of the total spending by November.

Both candidates bemoaned the negative tone of the campaign on Wednesday – while assigning much of the blame to the other side.

“Unfortunately for the national Republican Party and Senator Collins, we are seeing almost nothing but attack ads and very little talk of the substantive issues and challenges that Mainers face,” Gideon said. “We are going to continue to answer every one of those negative attacks, but throughout this, we will remain focused on what is really happening to Mainers, no matter where they live in the state, and talking about it.”

Sara Gideon listens to Alicia Barnes, a Navy veteran from Augusta, during veterans roundtable Wednesday at American Legion Post 205 in Augusta. On her first day as the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, Gideon met with lobstermen and veterans – two groups not commonly associated with the liberal side of the political spectrum.  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Collins said that “the people of Maine know me” despite the heavy advertising against her.

Collins’ approval rating has slid dramatically in Maine in recent years as her opponents increasingly try to link her to President Trump – who polls suggest is deeply unpopular in Maine outside of Republican circles – and to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

Asked three times by reporters about President Trump and his impact on her reelection chances, Collins declined to engage.

“I am concentrating on my own campaign,” she said when asked if she plans to support Trump’s reelection or vote for him. “As many of you have noticed, there have been unprecedented amounts of money poured into the state of Maine to distort my record and to attack my integrity and I am not going to get involved in presidential politics. I’m going to concentrate on my own race.”

When reminded by a reporter that she publicly detailed in 2016 why she couldn’t support Trump, Collins replied, “I was not up for reelection. I didn’t have my own race to worry about at that point.”

The senator later acknowledged, “In parts of this state, President Trump is very popular. In parts of the state, he’s very unpopular. I am running my own race. I’ve always run my own race and that’s what I will continue to do.”

Sen. Susan Collins talks with reporters after touring Jotul North America in Gorham on Wednesday. Collins proposed 16 televised debates with Democrat Sara Gideon, one in each Maine county.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Underscoring how the political currents have shifted, the LGBTQ advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign endorsed Gideon on Wednesday despite backing Collins in three previous elections. Collins also has lost the support of major labor unions, the League of Conservation Voters and other organizations.

Her October 2018 vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh also has galvanized opponents and prompted a crowdsourcing campaign that raised more than $4 million for her would-be Democratic opponent. While there might be legal challenges to that money, it would pad the $23 million Gideon had raised by June 24.

“I don’t get that caught up in trying to figure out who is ahead,” Collins said. “Our polling is very encouraging, I would say. But I’m just going to keep working for the people of Maine. My approach has always been that of a problem solver. That’s what I’m known for in Washington and that’s what I’m known for in Maine.”

The two candidates took multiple jabs at one another on Wednesday, with Gideon accusing Collins of voting with her party rather than her constituents back home and Collins portraying Maine’s House speaker as underqualified.

They also issued competing challenges on public debates.

Gideon’s campaign began by calling on Collins to appear with her in five debates. Asked about the challenge, Collins’ upped the ante by saying the pair should have 16 debates – one in each county. She then put the challenge in writing in a letter congratulating Gideon on her primary victory, but calling five debates “far too limited a schedule for such an important race.”

“To that end, I propose that we have 16 live, televised, in-person debates, one in each of Maine’s counties. Let’s have the first one tonight,” Collins wrote in a letter that her campaign said was sent to Gideon. “Again, congratulations on your primary victory. I look forward to an open and accessible discussion with you about the future of our state and nation, and I hope to see you in person this evening.”

For her part, Gideon didn’t commit to the one-per-county proposal, but said her campaign looks forward to “figuring out when and how those are going to happen.”

“All I know is as we have traveled around Maine for the past 13 months, we have heard over and over again from people who have said they have not seen Senator Collins in a forum where they are able to ask her questions,” Gideon said.

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