Four U.S. senate candidates (clockwise from top right) — Betsy Sweet, Lisa Savage, Tiffany Bond and Bre Kidman — participate in a forum with two moderators from a University of Southern Maine student group on Monday. The coronavirus is changing the campaign for the underdog hopefuls in the 2020 race. Credit: Screengrab | Zoom

Political campaigns, like so many other operations, have had to adjust in a time of social distancing. Hand shaking, petition gathering, large events, fundraisers and other in-person campaign activities have responsibly been put on pause during the current pandemic.

As candidates and their teams adapt the way they campaign, some have also shifted some of their activities to more directly helping people with coronavirus information and aid. In Maine’s Senate race, the well-resourced campaigns of incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins and expected Democratic challenger Sara Gideon can both point to steps their organizations — and the candidates themselves — have taken to reach out and directly help Mainers.

According to spokespeople, both campaigns have been calling people to check in and share information about coronavirus resources.

The Collins campaign says staff have helped some people get groceries, volunteered with local organizations like agencies on aging, and helped connect small business owners with resources related to the Paycheck Protection Program that Collins co-authored as part of the federal response to the virus. Collins herself has used personal funds to supply more than 500 New Balance masks to first responders.

Meanwhile, the Gideon campaign says it has raised more than $20,000 for three Maine charities, and that staff have been helping pick up groceries and volunteer in their communities. Gideon has bought and delivered groceries to local seniors and helped deliver school nutrition meals to families in the RSU school district. And this week, the campaign is purchasing meals and delivering them to several hospitals in the state.

Those are encouraging efforts from both campaigns and candidates.

But in a race that has long been expected to shatter spending records here in the state, with millions of dollars flowing through the Collins and Gideon campaigns and shadowy outside groups, is there more that could be done? With record unemployment claims and dire economic predictions, are there better ways to use those millions before the November election than negative advertising and donor list building?

One of Gideon’s competitors in the Democratic primary slated for July 14 is Bre Kidman, a Saco lawyer whose use of campaign funds even before coronavirus had highlighted an often overlooked way that candidates are allowed to spend their money: charitable donations.

Kidman had already been planning to use their campaign funds to host events and support community organizations in all 16 counties. The pandemic required a shift in that plan, and Kidman instead started using campaign funds to buy groceries for Mainers in need through mutual aid efforts like the Maine People’s Alliance initiative “ Mainers Together.”

Kidman told the BDN that the reason they got into the race was “to make this process work for the people.”

“We can do this better than we’re doing it,” Kidman said. “It’s a hard thing to say, and it’s a harder thing to do.”

Kidman estimates they have spent about $3,000 of what was roughly $6,000 in remaining campaign funds on this type of charitable aid. The other half is being held in reserve should the in-person events to benefit local community organizations become a possibility again, they said.

In comparison, as recent financial disclosures demonstrated, Collins and Gideon each had millions of dollars on hand at the end of March. Even in this new normal where federal relief efforts are measured in trillions, imagine the amount of good these campaigns could do if half of their millions went directly to coronavirus relief.

To be fair, these candidates are locked in a campaign arms race not only with each other, but with outside groups that don’t have the same disclosure requirements. And whether it’s donated to charities or not, a lot of that money is already finding its way into the Maine economy, including through advertising revenue for media companies. But it raises a question about what America values and expects from the political process.

It’s not particularly realistic, but it would be great to see some sort of campaign truce that helps Maine charitable organizations on a larger scale, while also sparing Mainers from the mutually assured distraction that comes with misleading negative ads and less informed debate about actual issues.

Any such armistice would need buy-in from the outside groups buying millions in air time.

Willy Ritch, the executive director of Maine Momentum, which has been targeting Collins, told the BDN his organization has held a telephone town hall and ran a texting campaign to talk about how coronavirus is impacting people across the state and connect them with helpful information. Ritch also said his organization has been considering donating money to relief efforts.

That would seem much more fitting for a “social welfare” organization than essentially campaigning against Collins with millions from undisclosed sources and calling it “ education and accountability.”

The coronavirus has changed the way some Maine politicians are campaigning this year, and disrupted prior notions of what is set in stone. It’s time for some disruption in the overall campaign finance system and what it prioritizes, as well.