Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, arrives in the Senate on March 14, 2019. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite | AP

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U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has turbo-charged her fundraising on the backs of large, out-of-state donors and raised more money for her 2020 campaign by March’s end than she had to this point in her last three re-election races combined.

The Republican senator, who is expected to run for a fifth term, has raised more than $4.4 million, matching two crowdfunds equaling less than $4.4 million pulled together by progressives for her eventual challenger after an October vote for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which looks to have reshaped her constituency and is leading to a nationally targeted race next year.

The race is poised to smash money records for U.S. Senate races in Maine well before Election Day. Collins’ haul of $4.4 million and the Democratic crowdfund have the 2020 race on pace to smash previous fundraising and spending records in Senate races here. A national map that favors Republicans in 2020 makes Maine one of two Democratic states with a Republican senator up for re-election, increasing the odds that even more outside money will come.

The senator raised less than $3.6 million to this point in her 2002, 2008 and 2014 re-election races, which she won by increasing margins and never by less than 16.8 percentage points. She had the biggest fundraising period of her career over the last three months of 2018 after the Kavanaugh vote by raising $1.8 million and things only ticked down a bit for her in 2019.

Collins raised just over $1.5 million by March’s end, with 58 percent of her money for the 2020 cycle coming from donors who gave $200 or more. A quarter of her money has come from political committees so far and another 16 percent came in unitemized donations from people giving less than $200.

In 2019, donors who gave maximum contributions to Collins included Robert Mercer, a billionaire and top funder of conservative causes who played a key role in the 2016 campaign of President Donald Trump, owned a share of Breitbart News and helped elevate Steve Bannon to a top post in the Trump campaign, and his wife, Diana Mercer, and Richard Fain, the CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises.

Only $9,200 in itemized donations to Collins came from Maine individuals in 2019 — most of it from higher-ups at Bath Iron Works and its parent company. The campaign has noted that it typically focuses on national fundraising until the election year, but Collins’ operation — by necessity or not — is at a higher pitch approaching 2020.

Collins looks to be in a reasonably strong position for re-election, but there is an opening for a Democrat who won’t struggle to catch up in fundraising. The incumbent appears to have a strong lead over House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, who is seen as her most likely Democratic opponent, with 51 percent support to Gideon’s 29 percent in a poll from Critical Insights last month that also measured Collins at 62 percent approval. Such a mark would make Collins difficult to beat, but a noisy and expensive campaign could flip those fundamentals.

The news wasn’t all bad for Gideon in that poll, in which 41 percent of voters said they didn’t know enough about her to say whether they approved of her or not. National money will find Gideon quickly if she runs, which probably won’t happen at least until the end of the legislative session that is scheduled for June.

Today in A-town

End-of-life care will be a focus today at the State House. Advocates and legislators who support a bill that would allow physicians to help terminally ill adults end their lives will make their case for the Death With Dignity Act at a news conference this morning. A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Wednesday as supporters target 2020 for a referendum push should they fail to win approval in the Legislature. A similar bill failed in 2017 after winning initial approval in the then-Republican-controlled Senate by one vote and getting spiked in the Democratic-controlled House.

Meanwhile, the budget process inches its way through the Legislature. Committees continue to make their recommendations on Gov. Janet Mills’ $8 billion, two-year spending plan to the Appropriations Committee, which has now veered into the work-session phase of deliberations. The new budget must be in place by July 1, and passage will require two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate.

In other committee work, the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hold public hearings on a Republican proposal to amend the state’s constitution to specifically limit voting in local elections to U.S. citizens. The measure seems squarely aimed at a proposal floated in Portland last year to allow noncitizens to vote in municipal elections. Click here to listen.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will also hold public hearings this morning on alternative sentencing and jail funding, which has been a chronic concern for state and county officials. Click here to listen.

Reading list

— The new governor seems to agree with the old governor’s assessment that a shuttered Washington County prison would be too expensive to keep running. Mills’ administration now proposes replacing the Downeast Correctional Facility, which former Gov. Paul LePage closed last year, with a pre-release center, likely somewhere else in the county. Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, who has again introduced legislation to re-open Downeast Correctional Facility, doesn’t like that idea. But as was the case when LePage fought to close the prison, high operating costs are driving the state to consider other options. Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said converting an existing building to a minimum-security facility or pre-release center in or close to Machias would cost close to $3 million, while some estimates for reopening the Machiasport prison have been as high as $17 million.

— Vaccination rates for children in Maine schools continue to decline. Data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention show that immunization rates ticked down slightly for the current academic year. The share of kindergartners vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella dropped from 94.3 percent in the last school year to 93.8 percent statewide, and the share of schoolchildren citing nonmedical exemptions from vaccine requirements rose from 5 percent to 5.6 percent. The U.S. average was 2 percent by that measure last year, when only six states had higher opt-out rates than Maine. Lawmakers are considering a bill from Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, that would severely limit opt-out options, but a hearing on that bill last month drew hundreds of opponents who cited parental rights and pseudoscientific arguments overstating risks of vaccination.

— Another high-profile immigration official is leaving the president’s administration. The Washington Post reports that Kirstjen Nielsen resigned Sunday as secretary of homeland security, marking the exit of a second top immigration official in less than a week as the White House seeks a tougher approach to an influx of migrants on the southern border. Senior administration officials said that Trump forced Nielsen to resign after the two met on Sunday. Her resignation came three days after the White House abruptly yanked the nomination of Ronald Vitiello, who had been picked as Trump’s director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Bright rites

Our town has a special way of welcoming spring. We stand around and watch things burn.

My kids noticed it when we first moved here. “Dad, why is everyone in Richmond burning stuff and drinking beer in their yards?” they asked.

“Must be spring,” was the best reply I could muster, as we drove around town marveling at the number of backyard blazes and how the flames seemed to have a hypnotic effect on the throngs gathered around sizzling leaves, logs and other winter debris.

As I pulled off the highway and began driving home through town on Saturday — the first Saturday of April — I saw black smoke on the eastern horizon and quickly realized that “standing around and watching things burn” season had begun. On the county road, a sheriff and the town’s fire department had assembled around the remains of a barn that served as their latest controlled burn. Around the corner, kids ringed a smaller pyre, watching the remains of a Christmas tree crackle as they debated whether to throw some discarded plastic lawn furniture onto the conflagration.

I pulled into our driveway, got out of the car, inhaled deeply — sucking tangy smoke into my lungs — and revelled in the fact that spring had arrived in our little corner of Maine. Now if we could just figure out how to barbecue peepers without having them fall through the grill. Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...