Democrat Sara Gideon’s bid to unseat Sen. Susan Collins was doomed the day after she announced she was running.
Gideon, a state legislator from Freeport who was then Maine’s Speaker of the House, formally announced her candidacy on Monday, June 24, 2019. The next day, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), a powerful political organization controlled by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other top members of the party establishment, announced it was backing her campaign.
At the time, the DSCC’s endorsement was perceived as a huge boost for Gideon. It would ensure her campaign would be well funded and guided by the brightest political minds in the business.
In retrospect, it was the kiss of death — a guarantee her campaign would be ugly, uninspiring, obscenely expensive, and out of touch with local concerns. Despite spending nearly $60 million, twice as much as Collins’ campaign did, Gideon lost by over 8 percentage points, more than 70,000 votes, in a state where Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by over 74,000.
The DSCC and likeminded political action committees flooded Maine’s modest media market and stuffed our mailboxes with ads and junk mail slamming Collins. Among them were so-called “dark money” groups that don’t disclose their donors, like Maine Momentum, an ad hoc operation run by Willy Ritch, a former spokesman for Democratic Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and Chris Glynn, a former Gideon staffer and spokesman for the Maine Democratic Party. In August of 2019, Maine Momentum dropped nearly three-quarters of a million dollars, all from secret sources, to run over 4,000 commercials attacking Collins, the Lewiston Sun Journal reported.
Incessant negative advertising by outside groups helped make this race the most expensive in Maine’s history. It also made a mockery of Gideon’s oft-repeated pledge to “limit the influence of big money in politics.” Republicans were quick to call the DSCC’s endorsement proof that Gideon was a puppet of Beltway powerbrokers, and her two Democratic primary challengers were equally critical. “The DC elite is trying to tell Mainers who our candidate should be,” Betsy Sweet, one of those challengers, tweeted that summer.
But, crucially, the DSCC’s endorsement also limited the impact of Gideon’s positive messages, the campaign promises she made to improve the lives of everyday Mainers.
It’s an axiomatic fact that Schumer and other top party officials will not back candidates who openly disagree with their policies or are likely to challenge their leadership. Adherence to the party line on big issues like health care and the climate crisis are unspoken prerequisites for a DSCC endorsement. So, unsurprisingly, Gideon did not support popular ideas championed by fellow Democrats, like a Green New Deal or universal health care. Even Democrat Jared Golden, who represents Maine’s conservative 2nd Congressional district, supports “Medicare for All;” he was reelected this fall in a district that once again voted for Trump. Instead, Gideon spoke of lowering prescription-drug prices and made vague vows to “create an economy that works for all Mainers.”
In the aftermath of Election Day, some top Democrats sought to blame progressives for the party’s poor showing in Senate and House races, but the DSCC’s record speaks for itself. Of the 18 Senate candidates endorsed by the committee, only four were victorious last month (two contenders, both in Georgia, failed to win on Nov. 3 but qualified for runoff elections next month).
As the campaign gained speed, the pandemic and the national uprising against police brutality gave Gideon two big opportunities to break from the moderate pack and distinguish herself from Collins, who denied that “systemic racism” is a “problem” in Maine, and whose Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was a fraud-riddled failure. But Gideon’s position on racial justice was limited to training-manual adjustments like banning chokeholds and racial profiling, as well as further study of the problems that have plagued Black Americans since Reconstruction. Her credibility to criticize the PPP was compromised by the million or more dollars her husband’s law firm got from the program. And Republican critics took to social media daily to point out that, as far as anyone could tell, the House Speaker was doing practically nothing to help Mainers crushed by COVID-19.
While her constituents worried about keeping their jobs and homes, Gideon’s campaign bombarded them with tens of millions of dollars’ worth of ads, including pleas for them to give her money. The fundraising juggernaut engineered by her highly paid political consultants badgered Mainers for more cash till the bitter end.
On the afternoon and evening of Election Day, the Gideon campaign sent multiple e-mails urging supporters “to rush one final contribution right now to help us keep our digital ads on the air until the polls close.” It was subsequently revealed that her campaign still had about $15 million left in its war chest at the time.
Earlier this month, Gideon’s campaign announced it was donating $250,000 to a Maine charity that feeds hungry children, and $100,000 to another that provides heating assistance. It’s unclear what will be done with the remaining $14 million and change (the campaign did not respond to Mainer’s request for comment), but huge sums have already been transferred to the Maine Democratic Party, presumably to fund future political campaigns.
Lisa Savage, a longtime Green Party activist and educator who ran as an independent in this ranked-choice Senate race and finished third, said a member of her team calculated how much each candidate spent per vote received. Savage spent $4.69 per vote, Collins about $65, and Gideon over $200.
The Gideon campaign’s massive ad buys “actually had the opposite effect, because of the overkill,” said Savage, who raised $190,000 and got 5 percent of the vote. “In Maine that really irritates people. People are hungry, they’re getting evicted, the homeless population has skyrocketed, and you’re spending this much on negative advertising? What is wrong with you people?”
“The simple fact is, raising more money does not make a better candidate,” said Bre Kidman, Gideon’s other Democratic primary opponent, who challenged state party leaders throughout that contest over what Kidman perceived as their unfair promotion of Gideon’s campaign.
“The model this cycle — and the model I am certain we’ll see repeated as Chuck Schumer continues on as Minority Leader — is that the party chooses a candidate they expect to bring in money, a candidate who will go along with corporate interests that fund the legions of Democratic campaign professionals that keep the machine running,” Kidman continued. “Mainers could smell the disingenuousness a mile away and, frankly, I don’t think the top-dollar, out-of-state consultants who worked on the campaign did anything at all to mask it.”
Gideon “didn’t have a single Maine person on her [communications] team,” said Savage. “Not one. They just don’t understand Maine.”
A review of the Gideon campaign’s finance filings reveals page after page of big payments to out-of-state consulting firms and media companies. DSCC executive director Mindy Myers personally received over $100,000 from Gideon’s campaign for consulting services. Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic ad agency that also worked for Biden this year, handled* over $8 million. Aisle 518 Strategies, a D.C. digital fundraising outfit, managed* over $6 million.
Grassroots Media, an ad-buying operation based in Philadelphia, oversaw the spending of* over $21 million from the Gideon campaign. The company (which did not respond to Mainer’s request for comment) lists only two people on its website as employees: president and founder Mike D’Ettorre and an assistant hired fresh out of college last summer.
Maine’s daily newspapers, which reported Gideon’s quarterly fundraising totals as evidence of her campaign’s strength, also cashed in, collectively earning over $1 million in ad revenue. Other sectors of Maine’s media industry were decidedly less fortunate.
Alex Steed, co-founder and director of the Portland creative agency Knack Factory, said Maine candidates running for national office rarely employ local firms. “Maybe they’ll hire one or two people to hold cameras or a microphone,” he said, “but it is so often hired out, pre-produced, and edited somewhere else.
“I was shocked at the quality of a lot of what I saw [from Gideon’s campaign], knowing it could have been done for much less and at considerably higher quality in the state,” Steed continued. “You can often tell, too, that [campaign content] was made by someone who has never spent more than a night or two in Yarmouth, or who was in Maine, once, at one of those destination barn weddings in Cape Elizabeth, and that’s their entire experience with the state. It shows.”
A key race for a Maine Senate seat this year illustrates how Gideon’s result may have been different had she run a less toxic and more responsive campaign. Democrat Chloe Maxmin, a progressive state lawmaker from the midcoast town of Nobleboro, challenged Republican Dana Dow, then the Minority Leader of the Maine Senate, and won. Maxmin ran a “100% positive” campaign “grounded in community values, not Party or ideology,” her website declared.
Maxmin and her local team created all their ads and adjusted content based on voter feedback. They knocked on over 13,000 doors in her rural, Republican-leaning district. The voters they encountered had no interest in the type of who-took-money-from-who sniping that characterized the U.S. Senate race. “The things I hear from people are, ‘We want good jobs here, we want to live in a rural place and make a good living,’” Maxmin said. “‘We want to know our children will have the same opportunity.’”
Citing research by Van Ness Creative Strategies, the Washington Post published a memo last month that found “of the 23,000 Facebook ads Sara Gideon ran this cycle, zero included written copy with the words ‘jobs’ or ‘economy.’”
Maxmin said Mainers in her district were “deeply disgusted with negative campaigning” and “so frustrated and fed up with the government and anyone who’s ever been elected, to the point of complete hopelessness and abandonment.”
“I thought that I would hear the classic issues from people: healthcare, education, property taxes,” Maxmin added. “And I certainly do hear them, but it’s couched in a larger narrative that the government is useless. … The Democratic Party is struggling right now, especially in rural places. And just campaigning in general has become so destructive and turned so many people away. But it’s also ground-zero for building a new type of politics.”
*Clarification: An earlier version of this article characterized the receipt of campaign funds by ad agencies in a way that may have led readers to misunderstand the use of those funds. Where indicated, that characterization has been clarified. The bulk of the funds received by ad agencies are spent to buy advertising, not for the profit or compensation of the firm itself.