The Ghost of Sara Gideon

Progressives Democrats challenging the frontrunner decry her absence from the campaign trail

Sara Gideon speaking with a constituent during a campaign event in East Machias last summer. photo/via Facebook

Sara Gideon’s strategy to win her party’s primary and become the Democratic challenger to Sen. Susan Collins is simple: pretend the primary isn’t happening. But as the July 14 vote approaches, Gideon’s politically progressive challengers are decrying her absence from the campaign. They say it’s evidence that Gideon will be just as unaccountable to voters as the Republican incumbent, whose aversion to town hall meetings is often criticized by Democrats.   

“Sara has forced the cancellation of more multi-candidate events during this primary than actually wound up taking place,” said Bre Kidman, a criminal-defense attorney from Saco challenging Gideon for their party’s nomination. “She’s always invited — at least to every forum I’ve been to. And she always has a ‘schedule conflict,’ even when presented with multiple dates.”

“I believe that the way we run is the way we will govern,” said Betsy Sweet, of Hallowell, the other Dem in the race. “I know that the only way to govern effectively is if you are accessible, transparent and listen. I’ve participated in every forum and debate that has been held. No scripted questions, no scripted answers. That’s how we beat Susan Collins in November, and that’s the type of leadership that Mainers are hungry for.”

In April, Gideon was a no-show for a forum hosted by the Sunrise Movement, the national youth-led, climate-activist organization, which subsequently endorsed Sweet and Kidman. When community radio station WERU, which broadcasts from Blue Hill and Bangor, reached out to the three candidates for its election coverage last month, Gideon ignored that offer, too.  

More recently, Gideon decided to skip a June 8 forum being hosted and televised by WCSH, the NBC affiliate in Portland. According to longtime anchor Pat Callahan, her campaign offered no explanation and would not provide an alternative date when the candidate could participate. Gideon’s campaign did not respond to Mainer’s request for comment on this topic.  

Gideon has represented Freeport in the Maine House of Representatives since 2012, and has been House Speaker since 2016. She is the most well-known candidate in the primary and, by far, the most well-funded. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, a PAC controlled by party leaders, endorsed Gideon the day after she announced her candidacy last June. Since then, she’s amassed a $15 million campaign war chest that even surpassed Collins’ fundraising total this spring.   

Kidman, who’s making their first run for office, had only raised about $16,000 by the end of last year. Sweet, who finished third in the Democratic gubernatorial primary two years ago, has raised over $400,000, but only had about $37,000 in the campaign piggy bank by the end of March, the Portland Press Herald reported. 

Gideon’s anointment by the party bosses who wield mega-donor dollars is another issue her opponents have sought to hammer her on. “The DC elite is trying to tell Mainers who our candidate should be,” Sweet tweeted last summer.    

“It is transparently anti-democratic to pump millions of dollars into erasing the existence of a primary race while refusing to appear at any events where one might be challenged on misleading statements,” Kidman said. “It’s not the behavior of a person who has any intention of being accountable to voters, and it’s not the behavior of a person who has any respect for the voters’ right to choose a candidate based on informed consent.”

The Maine Democratic Party has no plan to host a public forum or debate so its members can compare the candidates. “Historically the MDP has never hosted a candidate forum,” state party Chairwoman Kathleen Marra wrote in an e-mail to Kidman, who’s been challenging party leaders about what they consider favoritism toward Gideon. 

No Democratic organization at the county, town or city level has scheduled a forum for the senatorial contenders either, despite the potentially momentous stakes at play. The loss of Collins’ seat could tip the balance of power in the Senate to the Democrats, which is a big reason Collins’ race is generating record levels of political spending.   

Before the COVID-19 crisis, Gideon held a series of public campaign events called “Supper With Sarah.” Kidman claims that, like Collins, Gideon “never allows the opportunity to be questioned in a setting she doesn’t control.” The bean supper–style events “all feature pre-screened questions,” Kidman continued, and Gideon “ended several early upon getting a question she didn’t like.” 

At a lightly attended “Super With Sarah” event at a union hall in Skowhegan, held on Feb. 19, most of the questions Gideon fielded were softballs pitched by attendees she knew on a first-name basis. But toward the end, a young man in the audience spoke up. 

“Susan Collins has not been available to us,” he said. “What would you do differently?”

“Don’t vote for me if I’m not available,” Gideon curtly replied.

“A functioning democracy depends on informed consent, and Sara Gideon has shown consistently over the last year that letting voters make educated choices is less important to her than getting money from the donor class,” said Kidman. “This primary so far has been a performance of democratic process designed to perpetuate the illusion of choice.”