Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Sara Gideon (from left), Bre Kidman and Betsy Sweet. Credit: Composite photo / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The three Democrats vying for the nomination to face U.S. Sen. Susan Collins differed on policing, health care and economic policy as two insurgents tried to gain momentum in a rare Monday forum with the nationally backed frontrunner.

The event, streamed on Facebook and run by the Maine Democratic Party, was the first widely viewed event featuring all three candidates ahead of the July 14 primary. House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport, has agreed to participate in only one debate alongside Hallowell lobbyist Betsy Sweet and Saco lawyer Bre Kidman between now and then.

The candidates took varying approaches to policing reforms, a topic that has re-emerged after protests over the high-profile deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police, including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.

Gideon has largely ignored her primary challengers and two polls earlier this year found her narrowly leading Collins, who has won by increasingly large margins since her 1996 election. Sweet and Kidman have styled themselves as more progressive candidates, voicing support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal in contrast to Gideon.

The House speaker said police should have to undergo more racial bias training and that cameras should be required for officers and patrol vehicles. She also pressed for a ban on chokeholds and for the creation of a registry of all police who have had a bias incident.

“This moment is a reckoning for all of us about the structural existence of racism in our country,” Gideon said. “It is a legacy of bigotry that we have never eradicated.”

Sweet, however, called for the demilitarization of police and policy reform including an end of the “qualified immunity” doctrine, a law that protects police from being sued for civil rights violations unless the breach is obvious. Kidman called for the defunding of the police and redirecting those funds to community resources like mental health services.

Candidates also differed on efforts to restart the economy, which has been hammered by the coronavirus pandemic. Gideon called for the rolling back of Republicans’ 2017 tax cut package — a talking point she frequently uses against Collins, who backed it — and for public works projects geared toward addressing climate change.

Kidman criticized the amount of money that went to corporations under the March stimulus bill, saying any relief efforts should center on everyday Americans. Sweet suggested continuing rent and mortgage freezes and a monthly $2,000 a stipend until the pandemic ends.

“The reason there is so much pressure to open the economy and people are having such a hard time is because we prioritize helping corporations and not American citizens,” Sweet said.

Candidates were mostly civil in a forum that offered little back and forth between candidates, although Kidman took a few shots at the Gideon, criticizing her heavy fundraising, her flaunting of more debates and a $500 state ethics fine in 2019 against a political committee led by Gideon that has led to a federal complaint from Republicans that is unlikely to be taken up.

“Sara Gideon will give you Susan Collins in a blue suit, “but [the complaint] is going to make that a tough sell in the general election,” Kidman said.

The race appears to favor Gideon, who is supported by establishment Democrats and the most frequent target of criticism by Republicans and primary opponents. She first floated her run after Collins cast her 2018 vote for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, kicking off a Democratic challenge to Collins in a blue-leaning state.

Both Gideon and Collins raised record sums for Maine political campaigns through March, with Gideon raising $14.8 million to the incumbent’s $13.2 million. The race could see $55 million in advertising alone by Election Day in November, according to one projection last year.

Recently, Collins and her allies have touted her role in co-authoring the $500 billion Paycheck Protection Program, which has provided loans to businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, while hitting Gideon for presiding over a Legislature that has not convened since mid-March.

Gideon issued an ad on Monday highlighting her 2020 law capping the out-of-pocket cost for a 30-day supply of insulin at $35 for privately insured people. The Washington Post dinged her campaign last week for an ad that used a dated reference to wrongly imply that Paycheck Protection Program loans went to a fraction of the Maine businesses that got them.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.