PORTLAND, Maine – Democrat Sara Gideon sought to link Republican Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine, with President Donald Trump during their first debate Friday night, and she demanded several times that Collins say whether she’ll vote for him — a dare Collins wouldn't take.
Collins, who has said she didn't vote for Trump four years ago, brushed off the question, saying voters are more interested in talking to her about issues than who she supports in the presidential race. “Let me say this: I don’t think the people of Maine need my advice on whom to support for president,” Collins said.
But Collins was critical of Trump’s handling of the pandemic after the president acknowledged on tape months ago, to journalist Bob Woodward in comments only recently released, that he deliberately played down the danger.
“I believe that the president should have been straightforward with the American people. The American people can take hard facts. He had an obligation as president to be straightforward,” Collins said.
Collins, who is seeking a fifth term and long enjoyed a reputation as a moderate who reached across the partisan aisle, is facing the toughest campaign of her career, and Democrats view unseating her as key to retaking control of the Senate.
In attack ads, Democrats have been hammering away at her votes for Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court and for Trump’s tax breaks.
Collins was forced during the debate to defend her support for Kavanaugh, saying she has supported judges nominated by Democrats and Republican over the years as long as they were qualified and committed to precedent and the rule of law.
But Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House, said many of the federal judges nominated by Trump were incompetent.
“What we have seen over the past four years is a concerted effort to change the face of the judiciary, and we have seen nominees come from this president that are unqualified and not fit to be judicial nominees. Yet Sen. Collins has voted, as of this week, for 170 of them,” Gideon said.
Turning the tables, Collins asked Gideon if she would have voted for Chief Justice John Roberts, nominated by Republican President George W. Bush. Collins voted to confirm him in 2005.
Gideon said she would have to “fully study” the issue to answer the question, to which Collins responded, “She's ducking the question.”
Two independents, businessman Max Linn and educator Lisa Savage, also sought to make their mark during a fast-paced discussion that covered topics including health care, green energy, the environment, the pandemic and the economy.
Making the most of his opportunity, Linn came across at times like a carnival barker, touting his website and “bombshell announcements” while ignoring questions. Asked by the moderator to stay on topic, he retorted, “Request denied!”
Savage, meanwhile, told Mainers that because of ranked choice voting, they could select her without fear of her being a spoiler and thus promote issues of the “Green New Deal” and climate change and demilitarization.
The voting system, adopted by Maine voters in 2016, lets people rank all the candidates on their ballot. It incorporates extra voting rounds, the elimination of last-place finishers and reallocation of votes to ensure a majority winner.
All four of the candidates decried the role of money in the race, which is already the most expensive in Maine history.
Gideon already has raised more than $24 million, compared with more than $16 million for Collins, according to the latest campaign finance reports. That doesn’t include $3.8 million for Gideon that was crowdsourced by critics of Collins during the debate over Kavanaugh.
The debate was sponsored by News Center Maine, which operates TV stations in Portland and Bangor, along with the Portland Press Herald and Bangor Daily News. There was no audience because of the pandemic.
Both sides expect there to be several more debates before Election Day. Gideon originally suggested five debates, and Collins has agreed to six after proposed debates in each of Maine’s 16 counties.