By Mary Emily O'Hara
A storm is brewing in Maine. But this one isn’t the kind that batters rocky shorelines with sea spray; it’s one of the most contentious and important political races in the nation, with millions of dollars pouring into the coffers of candidates who are trying to unseat Senator Susan Collins.
Collins, a centrist Republican who has voted in line with the Trump administration nearly 70 percent of the time, has served the state of Maine since her 1997 senatorial swearing-in. But Mainers angered by Collins’s recent record are running against her from all sides: Independents, Republicans, Democrats, and Green Party candidates are all vying for her seat. And in an exciting development for LGBTQ+ advocates, the crop of candidates includes Bre Kidman, a nonbinary Democrat, and Danielle VanHelsing, a transgender Independent.
“To have a trans candidate and a nonbinary candidate running in the same race for U.S. Senate is unprecedented, but also indicative of where our politics is headed,” Mayor Annise Parker, President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund, told MTV News. “Regardless of the outcome in this particular race, their candidacies will inspire other trans and nonbinary people to run for office.”
This past April, Kidman graduated from the group’s Victory Institute Candidate & Campaign Training — which has trained high-profile LGBTQ+ candidates like Colorado governor Jared Polis and Virginia delegate Danica Roem. According to the Victory Institute, they’re part of a new wave: The number of nonbinary, gender non-conforming, or genderqueer-identified elected officials has slowly increased to 11 today, including local council and school board members in places like Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Puerto Rico. The number of transgender women and men in office has increased too, says the Victory Institute, with at least 20 trans elected officials currently serving across the country.
Kidman, a Saco-based attorney, has already helped clear a path for future candidates just by running. They told MTV News that when they filed disclosure forms with the Senate Special Committee on Ethics, a requirement of announcing a campaign the government website offered a mandatory dropdown menu with gendered honorifics like “Mr.” and “Mrs.” Kidman was able to get the committee to add the gender-neutral “Mx.” to the dropdown menu within a week. Notably, Maine allows nonbinary people to identify as such on their driver’s licenses and state ID cards, making it one of 15 U.S. states (plus the District of Columbia) to provide such affirmation.
As a trans woman, VanHelsing says has endured “death threats and threats of violence” in response to her campaign. Such vitriol is not uncommon for transgender people running for office; in 2018 Christine Hallquist, who ran for governor as a Democrat in Vermont, said her office received regular death threats that started before she even won the primary and became the first major-party trans gubernatorial candidate in history. As a result, Hallquist’s team stopped giving advance notice of some appearances and declined to publicly release the location of her campaign headquarters. (She eventually lost to Republican Phil Scott.)
Even when trans candidates don’t endure direct threats of violence, they often run against opponents that have built political careers on anti-LGBTQ+ bias. When Virginia’s Danica Roem became the first trans person elected to a state legislature in 2017, she simultaneously defeated a Republican opponent who had introduced an anti-trans “bathroom bill” and who referred to himself as the state’s “chief homophobe.”
VanHelsing isn’t letting threats stop her from doing the work that she believes in. She told MTV News that she’s running as an independent in order to “make my state and my country better without the clutter that comes with party politics.” That wouldn’t actually make her an outlier in Maine: the state has a history of supporting independent officials like Senator Angus King, who has stayed out of the dual-party system since first entering the state’s politics as governor in 1993.
Collins isn’t the only hurdle these candidates will have to contend with. Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon is already considered the frontrunner for the Democratic party. Just one day after announcing her bid, Gideon received three heavyweight endorsements from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), Emily’s List, and NARAL Pro-Choice America. In an email to MTV News, Gideon said she wants to change the influence that non-constituents have over elected officials like Collins.
“Whether it was her vote to jeopardize health care, to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, or her close relationship with the fossil fuel industry,” Gideon wrote, “Senator Collins has left behind the folks she was elected to represent in favor of Mitch McConnell and the special interests that donate to her campaign."
Gideon has already faced a scandal of her own in Maine, where former Republican state senator Ed Youngblood filed federal and state ethics complaints in August, alleging Gideon "blatantly, deliberately, and repeatedly" violated campaign finance laws after it was revealed that her political action committee reimbursed her for past personal contributions to campaigns. Gideon’s campaign says the candidate was simply misinformed about how to process contributions and has since made replacement payments to the U.S. Treasury to resolve the issue. At the time, Gideon’s spokesperson Maeve Coyle told the Bangor Daily News that it was “unfortunate that people are trying to misrepresent the facts and turn this into a partisan political attack.”
The race overall is guaranteed to be vicious, with a July report from Advertising Analytics and Cross Screen Media predicting $55 million dollars will be spent on advertising across the various campaigns for Maine’s senate seat — including from Collins herself — resulting in what could be the most expensive Senate race in the state’s history.
Between the Democratic Party’s push to retake the Senate, financial resources normally reserved for a presidential campaign, and a sort of feminist rage spurring the race to unseat Collins after her vote to confirm accused sexual assaulter Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the Senate race is already proving contentious for a state of just over 1.3 million people. In mid-August, the nonpartisan Cook Report recategorized the Maine senate race from one that “leans Republican” to a “toss-up.”
The Kavanaugh vote was likely the nail in the coffin when it came to Maine’s support for its only female, and lone Republican, senator. (The most recent rankings from Morning Consult list Collins as the second most-despised senator in the country, trailing just behind the maligned Mitch McConnell.) For Kidman, the vote was the impetus for a new level of political engagement.
“I ended up going down to D.C. two days before the decision and banged on [Collins’s] door,” Kidman said. “A staffer came out, and I said, ‘I’m a constituent and a lawyer, and I need to talk to my senator about this.’”
A survivor of sexual violence, Kidman said it made them sick to see Kavanaugh’s alleged history of sexual assault painted as a partisan political attack rather than as a serious crime. They and other survivors talked with a Collins staffer, urging the senator to vote against Kavanaugh. In the end, they lost. Collins — along with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, considered the other swing vote — gave Kavanaugh a pass, ensuring his placement on the Supreme Court.
Collins threw support behind Kavanaugh at great risk; a coalition of political action committees had launched a high-profile social media campaign to raise money to fund her opponent in the event that she voted to confirm Kavanaugh. Activist Ady Barkan, through his own Be A Hero PAC in conjunction with the Maine People’s Alliance and Mainers for Accountable Leadership, raised over a million dollars before Collins even cast her vote — with the intent of pressuring her to help keep Kavanaugh off the bench. When Collins voted yes, donations poured in from around the country, and now stand at over $4 million, all of which is pledged to whichever candidate opposing Collins wins the state primary.
“One of our top priorities has been ensuring whoever the general election Democratic challenger ends up being, that candidate has the strength and resources they need to compete against Sen. Collins's network of ultra-rich donors,” Barkan told MTV News, citing both her approval of Trump’s tax cuts as well as her decisive vote to confirm Kavanaugh as reasons to support her ouster in favor of a more progressive voice. “To that end, we're proud to have raised $4 million from 160,000 small-dollar donors across the country, and we will do everything in our power to ensure Sen. Collins does not return to Washington after the election."
That the donations came not only from Collins’s constituents, but from around the country, is telling. Eyes were on the Supreme Court vote nationwide, and Collins’s ultimate support of Kavanaugh served as a harsh reminder that Democrats retain little power while the Senate is dominated by Republicans. But even if the entire nation is watching the Maine race, it’s the state’s residents that have the most at stake. VanHelsing decided to run, in part, because she doesn’t think Collins has appropriately used her influence to improve the everyday lives of Mainers.
“Susan Collins has held the office since the mid-'90s and has made little to no effort to improve her state as a whole,” VanHelsing told MTV News. “She also has spent far too much time bootlicking for her party and ignoring the will of her constituents. Maine is one of the poorest states in the nation and she has done very little to overcome this in her 20 years of leadership and it is time for that to change.”
According to Census data, the average per capita income in 2017 was below the U.S. average at just $31,088. Schools and nonprofits are already struggling; to that end, Kidman decided that their fundraising money should go directly to local community groups, rather than putting donations back into the campaign itself.
“I started thinking, what would I do with four million dollars?” Kidman said. "People are too exhausted from trying to feed our families and pay our bills. Ultimately my goal is to raise awareness of what’s happened to our political system, and to encourage more people to run.”