Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Betsy Sweet addresses an audience at a town hall event in Augusta on Wednesday.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Betsy Sweet talks somewhat like a political outsider. She isn’t one. But she looks like one in an underdog Democratic primary challenge to the party-backed House Speaker Sara Gideon for the right to face U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in 2020.

The race against Collins, a Republican, is expected to be one of next year’s most expensive Senate campaigns. She has raised record amounts of money since the October vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court that put her seat on the map for national Democrats.

They have Gideon pegged as the nominee. National Republicans’ campaign machine has revved up against her. Her June launch generated $1 million in 10 days. She was quickly backed by Senate Democrats’ campaign arm and abortion-rights groups influential in primaries.

The slight is animating Sweet, a Hallowell lobbyist who finished third in the 2018 gubernatorial primary and is one of four others running for the nomination. She wrote a fundraising email last week directed at national Democrats that said Mainers want progressive leaders who will “say what we believe, even if it means stepping on some donor’s thousand-dollar shoes.”

The different approaches of Sweet and Gideon of Freeport were on display in stump speeches at a Democratic barbecue in South Portland on Saturday.

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Gideon contrasted bipartisan actions in the Maine Legislature with relative inaction in Congress, highlighted her battles in Augusta with former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, argued that Collins is “not who she once was” under President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans.

“We need a champion and that’s who I promise to be for all of you,” she said.

Sweet said “raising a ton of money” for “negative ads” and “nibbling around the edges” on policy won’t work. She floated a proposed constitutional change to create a publicly funded federal election system, limit campaigns to 12 weeks and allow only individuals to give to campaigns.

“What is exciting people around this country are bold ideas like a Green New Deal, like Medicare for all, like eliminating student debt,” she said in reference to proposals from congressional progressives that are litmus tests in the Democratic presidential primary.

Gideon hasn’t discussed policy much so far. In her stump speech, she called for “bold, immediate action on climate change” and said “affordable, quality health care” is a “human right.” In an interview, she stopped short of backing the Green New Deal and Medicare for all.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

She said she supports “a public option so everyone can buy into Medicare,” reminiscent of a proposal from former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential frontrunner. On climate, she said changes passed in Maine this year — including a goal to achieve 100 percent renewable energy in the electricity sector — should be a model for Congress.

Republicans are most concerned with Gideon, who is facing federal and state ethics complaints from them over 2015 and 2016 political donations reimbursed by her state political committee in a violation of campaign finance law. Her campaign blamed the errors on “incorrect guidance.”

Sweet and Saco lawyer Bre Kidman, another candidate for the seat, admonished Gideon after that. Kidman has stopped fundraising in the race and said they are running as an “ideas candidate” on a platform that includes criminal justice reform. Retired Air Force major general Jonathan Tracey of Oxford and travel agent Michael Bunker of Bangor are also running.

Senate Republicans’ campaign arm also drove a billboard around the liberal bastion of Portland in August calling Sweet “too liberal for Maine” in a move largely aimed at boosting her among Democratic voters. Sweet responded by thanking them for the publicity.

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At a Wednesday town hall event in Augusta, Sweet conceded that she would be an underdog against Collins and Gideon. In an interview, she said the infrastructure she built during her gubernatorial campaign — where she finished ahead of better-known politicians — provides a base for her run.

She ran using Maine’s taxpayer-funded election system. That isn’t available to her this time around and she raised $81,000 by June’s end. She has endorsements from two national progressive groups and said more are on the way, but Gideon has other institutional support that includes endorsements from 70 Democratic legislators.

Their supporters also embody a subtle Democratic split. Jamie Wagner, a Cape Elizabeth lawyer, said he’s backing Gideon because she’s “the strongest and the most electable of the Democrats,” citing fundraising and her ability to make the case against the incumbent.

“You’re not going to beat Susan Collins by just talking about your own policy ideas,” Wagner said. “You have to talk about what Susan has and hasn’t done in Washington.”

At Sweet’s town hall in Augusta — just over two miles from her house — Ann Gosline of Litchfield said Gideon’s national backing would be a challenge for Sweet, but she said her preferred candidate has an ability to inspire people.

“I think Betsy has a better chance of winning the general election and making a difference once she gets elected,” Gosline said.

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...