U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. Credit: Gabor Degre

Good morning from Augusta. Democrats considering a run against U.S. Sen. Susan Collins are not yet convinced that the Republican set for the ballot alongside President Donald Trump in a nationally targeted 2020 race is particularly vulnerable.

No well-known Democrats have declared to challenge the four-term incumbent, but that’s likely to change shortly after the 2019 legislative session ends, when House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, is a good bet to formally enter a race she has flirted with since Collins made her lightning-rod vote for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in October.

But at least three other Democrats — including Secretary of State Matt Dunlap — who have run statewide campaigns within the past 10 years are also considering a run, indicating a cautious hope that running against Collins next year could pay off after her runaway re-election victory in 2014.

The Kavanaugh vote changed Collins’ profile, though how much is unclear. Republicans are unlikely to lose the Senate in 2020 with a favorable map. That has made Collins’ seat in a Democratic-leaning state a national target in relative terms for the first time since her Senate election in 1996.

The Kavanaugh voted has added national fervor to Maine’s 2020 U.S. Senate race, with progressives raising $4.4 million in crowdfunds slated for Collins’ future opponents. The Republican incumbent raised a matching amount as of March’s end and had the biggest fundraising quarter of her career after her Kavanaugh vote, amid ensuing pledges from leading Republicans to send lots of national money her way.

Polling from Morning Consult found that Collins’ Maine approval rating has dropped from 67 percent to 52 percent between the first quarters of 2017 and 2019. However, it has barely moved since the Kavanaugh vote as Republican support offset Democratic losses. Other polls since March have pegged her at 62 percent favorability and 41 percent approval.

Democrats considering a run deem Collins a tough out. All of this has made the Democratic environment around the seat uncertain. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District, tamped down speculation that she or her daughter, Hannah Pingree, the head of Gov. Janet Mills’ innovation office, might run against Collins by telling Bloomberg, “I don’t think either one of us is going to be her challenger.”

It leaves Gideon, Dunlap, Hallowell lobbyist and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Betsy Sweet and developer and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Rosa Scarcelli as the other potential candidates being talked about most. Zak Ringelstein, the Democratic nominee in 2018 against independent U.S. Sen. Angus King, and Dan Kleban, the co-founder of Maine Beer Company in Freeport, have also floated runs.

In an interview, Dunlap, who lost a 2012 primary for the seat won by King and is term-limited from his job after 2020, said Tuesday that it’s “a little early to say” that Collins is vulnerable, calling a statewide run “a tremendous gift” that he’s considering but also “a hell of an ordeal.”

Sweet, who finished third in the 2018 gubernatorial primary won by Mills, said Collins has done “really good stuff in the past” and may still be popular, but “many, many people feel like she’s forgotten who she represents.” Sweet said a decision on running would have to come “relatively soon” though there are “compelling reasons” to run and not to run.

Scarcelli, the third-place finisher in the 2010 Democratic primary for the seat won by former Gov. Paul LePage, said she would likely decide on a run by late fall. She said Collins is in a strong position and warned against a Democratic challenger from the “political class,” saying Trump’s pockets of popularity stem from an outsider status.

Today in A-town

The chambers are set to vote on bills including one to implement automatic voter registration. The House of Representatives and Senate will be in just after 10 a.m. exactly two weeks before the scheduled 2019 adjournment date of June 19. Among the high-profile measures to be considered are a Gideon bill that would make Maine the 18th state to establish automatic voter registration. It would be run by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and would require $140,000 in federal funds to begin by 2022. Under the program, Mainers doing business with that agency could register voters unless someone opts out from registering.

A compromise replacement for a “red flag” bill will be aired at a hearing that could elicit a split among Democrats driving the agenda in Augusta. The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee will hold a 1 p.m. hearing on the measure negotiated by Mills’ administration, lawmakers and gun-rights groups that has emerged as the likely replacement for a so-called red flag bill that was a key priority for gun control advocates in 2019.

The new bill, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, would work within state protective custody laws to allow police to seize guns from people with mental health conditions who are deemed dangerous by a health professional before a hearing in front of a judge within 14 days.

That link to mental health differentiates the new bill from the red flag bill sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, which would allow courts to order seizures by finding someone dangerous. Red flag laws have been linked to reductions in suicides, but gun-rights groups oppose them and Mills has taken a dim view of gun control since a 2018 Democratic primary campaign in which she embraced it.

The red flag bill is alive with Democratic support, but the Mills-backed compromise is likely to overtake it. Lawmakers on another panel already agreed to kill several other gun control proposals in preparation for its passage, though gun control advocates including Florida school shooting survivor David Hogg were pushing for the Maine red flag law on Tuesday.

Reading list

— The fate of a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients now rests with the governor. On Tuesday, the Maine Senate gave final approval to a bill from Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, that would make Maine the ninth state with a law that would allow what proponents call “death with dignity.” The bill pre-empts a drive to place a ballot question calling for similar provisions before voters in 2020. The Senate passed the bill 19-16, a day after it passed the House by one vote. All but two Senate Democrats — Mike Carpenter of Houlton and Bill Diamond of Windham — voted for the bill. Sen. Marianne Moore of Calais, a co-sponsor of the bill whose father died of cancer and a cancer patient navigator, was the only Republican senator to support it. This year’s effort marks the seventh legislative attempt to enact a “death with dignity” bill since 1992. Mills has yet to take a clear public position on the measure.

— The governor laid out her borrowing priorities on Tuesday. Transportation, land conservation and workforce development are the focus of a $189 million bond package that Mills urged lawmakers to send to voters in November 2019. The package unveiled by the Democratic governor on Tuesday is her bid to shape Maine’s borrowing roadmap, balancing a transportation department plan that assumes annual borrowing with more than $1.5 billion in borrowing proposals floated by the Democratic-led Legislature. A top Republican lawmaker took a dim view of the package of items that may not be palatable alone. Mills also wants to place $50 million in future bonding on the ballot in 2020. Of that, $30 million would go to broadband with the rest going to research and development and fishing and farming infrastructure.

— Opponents of Central Maine Power’s proposed hydropower transmission corridor through western Maine took a hit in the House. Maine Public reports that a bill from Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, to mandate a climate impact study of the $1 billion project fell far short in Tuesday’s House vote of mustering the two-thirds majority required to pass as an emergency, which is needed to meet a tight deadline for delivery of the study. As was the case in the first House vote on the proposal, Tuesday’s narrow vote in support of the bill signalled that Mills, a high-profile backer of the project who has been lobbying fellow Democrats on the issue, could find more than enough support to block this and other proposals aimed at the corridor by using her veto power.

— One of Maine’s most popular wedding locations will close by the end of the year. The new owners of Point Lookout in Northport will close the sprawling venue — originally a corporate retreat for credit card giant MBNA — by the end of December. The impending closure of Northport’s largest employer and property tax payer will put roughly 70 people out of work and force couples who had already booked wedding dates there in 2020 to find new nuptial sites. The Hirschfelds, principals of Montana-based Deep Creek Grazing Association, bought the 387-acre property on Ducktrap Mountain overlooking Penobscot Bay in March for an undisclosed amount of money. They hired a hotel management company to assess the property and that assessment led them to make the decision to close Point Lookout.

Larry the cat trumps Trump

As a political journalist whose main focus is Maine, I try hard not to wade into national or international affairs. But an incident Tuesday did place me in full sympathy with our current president.

Alex Ward of Vox reports that Trump’s Tuesday visit to 10 Downing St., the home of the British prime minister, was disrupted when Larry, a cat who has been Downing Street’s official “chief mouser” since 2011, decided to camp out under the president’s limo, which is known as “The Beast.”

“The important cat’s decision to relax below Trump’s heavily armored vehicle meant that it couldn’t drive until Larry decided to leave. But Larry refused, leading some journalists waiting outside to joke about the ‘huge security issue,’” Ward wrote. “But don’t lose sight of what Larry has achieved: Thousands of protesters descended on London in hopes of stopping Trump’s motorcade from rolling. They failed, though, allowing Trump so far to travel around the city unimpeded. Which means Larry had more success giving Trump’s security team a headache — albeit a very small one — on Tuesday than any of the demonstrators in the British capital.”

As a longtime shepherd of foster kittens for the local humane society — and now subservient human companion to a few who stayed with us permanently as what are called “failed fosters” in shelter parlance — I am all too familiar with headaches caused by willful felines who insist on making their presence known. Just this morning, I was greeted with a regurgitated hairball in the spot where I usually hunker down to write my part of Daily Brief.

All things considered, it could have been a lot worse, Mr. President. 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.

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...