In the sordid history of American politics, there’s never been a campaign-finance scandal like the one now enveloping Sara Gideon, the Democrat who lost to Sen. Susan Collins this fall. This political outrage is not about who Gideon took money from or how she spent it during her bid to unseat the unpopular incumbent. It’s not even about the campaign anymore.
Rather, it’s the fact Gideon still has over $14 million in her campaign war chest and, nearly two months after Election Day, as Mainers face a winter of unprecedented hardship, she’s refusing to donate those funds to local charities or even comment on her plans for the money.
As Mainer reported earlier this month, Gideon’s campaign sent e-mails soliciting contributions as late as the evening of Election Day, despite the fact it still had nearly $15 million. The Democrat’s campaign team did not respond to our requests for comment, but has since released statements to other media attempting to explain its behavior.
Steve Mistler, a reporter for Maine Public, the state’s public radio and television outlet, asked Gideon’s team if those Election Day solicitations were “appropriate given the campaign’s surplus of cash.”
“Elections are unpredictable and campaigns plan for a number of different outcomes and scenarios at any given point,” said Maeve Coyle, Gideon’s campaign spokesperson. “That planning involves ensuring that the campaign has the resources it might need for any number of potential outcomes.”
Unlike Georgia, where the close outcome of both Senate races has forced runoff elections necessitating additional campaign spending, Maine has no runoff system. But it does have ranked-choice voting for federal elections.
In this case, additional rounds of ballot-counting were unnecessary, because Collins won a clear majority of first-choice votes. Had the contest been close enough to bring voters’ second choices into play, it’s conceivable a campaign would want to have funds on hand to monitor that process or finance a legal challenge. But, again, that didn’t happen, so there is no way for Gideon to use any of that leftover cash on her defunct Senate run.
Dan Aibel, whose “Collins Watch” Twitter account pillories the Republican Senator almost daily, directed fire at her Democratic opponent in a Dec. 18 tweet. “Elections are unpredictable. Yes!” Aibel wrote, referring to Coyle’s justification for the Election Day cash grab. “But that doesn’t justify lying to your grassroots supporters and trying to extract $$ from them that you don’t actually need in the middle of a pandemic and an economic collapse.”
The D.C. news outlet Roll Call, which also tried in vain to get a response from Team Gideon, reported that it’s “unusual’ for a candidate to have so much extra money, and quoted a Democratic campaign finance lawyer who called Gideon’s nest egg an “extremely large amount of money to have left over after a campaign.”
Perhaps recognizing the awful optics, Gideon’s campaign issued a press release in early December announcing donations to a Maine charity that helps feed hungry children and another that provides heating assistance. But as Maine Public pointed out, at a combined $350,000, those donations represent only 2 percent of her campaign’s current bank balance.
When Mistler pressed Coyle about Gideon’s plans for the remaining $14 million, the spokeswoman said Gideon won’t decide if or how to spend that money for months to come. The politician “wants to be very thoughtful and deliberate in her decision making with the intention of finding the best way to effectively make lasting and positive change in people’s lives,” Coyle told Maine Public. “She feels this is not something that can be done in a matter of weeks.”
Longtime newspaper columnist Bill Nemitz, the closest thing liberal Mainers have to a “voice of conscience,” devoted his space in the Dec. 13 Maine Sunday Telegram to the question of what Gideon should do with all these funds. (She wouldn’t talk to him, either.) Nemitz gave credence to the suggestion of a reader in Cape Elizabeth, one of Maine’s wealthiest ZIP codes, who said Gideon should spend the entire sum trying to help the Democratic Senate candidates in Georgia win their runoffs next month.
The columnist observed the “inherent contradiction” of Gideon pumping millions into Democratic Senate races that, by her own example, cannot be won simply by outspending the opponent (Gideon blew through over $60 million, twice what Collins spent, in her failed bid). But Nemitz declined to use his platform to urge Gideon to do otherwise.
In the weeks before and after Election Day, Gideon gave the Maine Democratic Party a total of $3.5 million — ten times the amount she donated to local charities this month. Local foods banks say Maine is facing an “unprecedented hunger crisis,” with nearly 215,000 people — one of every six Mainers, including 60,000 children — experiencing hunger and the fear of not knowing where their next meal will come from. As of this writing, the Maine Democratic Party’s effort to raise $16,666 from workaday Mainers to provide 50,000 food-bank meals was still $4,160 short of that goal. It’s unclear whether the state party will dip into the millions it received from Gideon to close the gap.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Portland, a short drive from Gideon’s $1.4 million home in Freeport, people are freezing to death.
Saco attorney Bre Kidman, who challenged Gideon in the Democratic Party primary this spring, is among those disgusted by Gideon’s hoarding of campaign cash during this humanitarian crisis. “I learned about an hour ago that one of my houseless client’s cases was dismissed,” Kidman told Mainer this week. “It was because he died in the cold.”