Sen. Susan Collins and Sara Gideon sparred over the Supreme Court, abortion, health care and their own responses to the coronavirus pandemic during the final debate of a historic U.S. Senate election in Maine.

With polls suggesting a close race and a small segment of voters still undecided, the two front-runners sought to drive home their campaigns’ talking points while landing strategic blows against their opponents.

For Collins, a 24-year Senate veteran seeking a fifth term in Washington, that meant talking about her work to craft a COVID-19 relief bill for businesses in Maine while stating that Gideon “has done nothing for seven months” as Maine’s House speaker.

Gideon, meanwhile, accused Collins of playing a key role in Republican efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and pack the courts with ideologically conservative judges while ignoring the ongoing economic plight caused by the pandemic.

“It has been six month, six months and you have continued to confirm judicial nominees while the people in Maine and businesses are shuttering,” Gideon said.

The two candidates met for a final time less than one week before Election Day even as another poll suggested the race is a statistical dead heat despite more than $160 million spent on the campaign, much of it by out-of-state groups. It was also the first and last time that front-runners Gideon and Collins debated each other without Max Linn and Lisa Savage, who were not invited by WMTW-TV to participate.

Gideon has consistently led Collins in polls but has yet to pull away from the incumbent. A Colby College poll of 879 likely Maine voters found Gideon at 46.6 percent and Collins at 43.4 percent, which is just within the 3.3 percentage point margin of error. The Colby poll, which was conducted from Oct. 21-25, had Savage at 4.7 percent and Linn at 1.7 percent with 3.6 percent undecided.

Some of the most substantive dialogue during Wednesday’s debate focused on the issues of health care, abortion and how the Supreme Court could reshape landmark laws dealing with both. The debate took place just two days after the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed Amy Coney Barrett – without Collins’ support on procedural grounds – to the Supreme Court, giving conservatives a clear 6-3 majority on the court.

Collins’ pivotal 2018 vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh infuriated reproductive rights groups who had previously viewed Collins as one of their few Republican allies in Congress. Asked what the Senate should to do protect legal access to abortion if Roe v. Wade is struck down, Collins said she does not believe that decision or a subsequent ruling decision reaffirming the case are at risk.

“I think it is extremely unlikely that the Supreme Court would act to overturn both of those precedents,” Collins said.

Gideon responded by pointing to her work in the Maine Legislature to strengthen and expand access to reproductive health care. But she also said Collins voted for Barrett for a lifetime appointment to a federal appellate court despite the nominee’s writings criticizing both the Affordable Care Act and Roe v. Wade.

“So I would ask you: if reproductive choice is important to you, who do you want representing you in the Senate and making decisions about the judiciary and Roe v. Wade?” Gideon said.

In recent weeks, Gideon has been campaigning on the message that “health care is on the ballot” as she attempts to link Collins to Republican efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court is slated to take up a Republican-backed lawsuit challenging President Barack Obama’s health care law just days after the election, a lawsuit that was sparked by provisions in a 2017 tax cut bill that eliminated the individual mandate.

In an attempted preemptive strike, Collins used her opening statement to state that she cast a key vote to protect people with preexisting conditions. The Republican also accused Gideon of supporting the individual mandate that imposed financial penalties on people who did not obtain insurance and a public option to Medicare that some studies suggest could put rural hospitals at financial risk.

“These are the facts and not even millions of dollars in misleading ads will change that,” Collins said.

Gideon said the Maine Legislature, under her leadership, had to take steps to protect patients with preexisting conditions and to continue other aspects of the ACA in the face of Republican efforts to repeal the law.

“In the Senate, unfortunately, we have seen no plan from Senator Collins or Mitch McConnell about what is going to happen,” Gideon said. “They have worked for 10 years, 10 years to take your health care away from you. We cannot afford Senator Collins continue to be in the U.S. Senate or Mitch McConnell to continue to be majority leader.”

That was a refrain from Gideon throughout Wednesday’s debate – and over much of her campaign – as she tries to link Collins to McConnell as well as President Trump. Collins has refused to say whether she is voting for Trump this election despite publicly opposing him in 2016, and she declined to do so again on Wednesday.

“I’m not getting involved in the presidential campaign,” Collins said. “What is important to me is that I can work well with either Joe Biden, with whom I have served many years in the Senate and with whom I have a good relationship, or with Donald Trump. I have developed a good relationship with members of his administration.”

With Trump trailing badly in most statewide polls in Maine, Democrats perceive the president as a key vulnerability for Collins. The Collins campaign and her allies, meanwhile, have sought to portray Gideon has a candidate hand-picked by Washington Democrats and as someone so focused on campaigning that she neglected to exercise leadership during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The fact is that rather than trying to meet the needs of the people of Maine during this pandemic, Sara has not been at work for seven months,” Collins said. “She has not called the Legislature back into session. She has not acted to advise the governor on the $1.25 billion that we provided directly to state government. She has not tried to fix the problems in the unemployment office that have delayed benefits for people who have desperately needed it.”

Gideon responded that Collins’ statements were “blatantly untrue” and that she had attempted to call the Legislature back into session twice but was blocked by Republican lawmakers.

The candidates differed on the issue of systemic racism as well. Both candidates said they support police reforms such as banning chokeholds and a national registry of officers accused of misconduct. But while Collins said she sees systemic racism elsewhere around the country, she does not believe it is an issue in Maine. Gideon, on the other hand, pointed to the higher COVID-19 infection rates among minority communities as well as barriers to health care and education as well as higher incarceration rates as evidence of racial problems in Maine.

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