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

The three Democratic candidates vying to face U.S. Sen. Susan Collins later this year challenged each other over money, experience and policy differences in a Monday forum that was likely their final meeting before the July 14 primary.

House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport, lobbyist Betsy Sweet of Hallowell and lawyer Bre Kidman of Saco participated in the debate, hosted remotely by Maine Public. It was the second such event featuring all three Democratic U.S. Senate candidates in the past few weeks, following a forum hosted by the Maine Democratic Party in June. Kidman and Sweet have also met for several forums that Gideon, the primary frontrunner, has declined.

The three candidates answered broad questions about racial justice, health care and climate change. Sweet and Kidman generally backed national progressive plans including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Gideon outlined specific policy priorities while keeping attacks focused on Collins.

They also took audience questions about subjects ranging from lobster and right whale regulations to U.S. foreign policy with respect to Israel. The debate also included a segment where candidates asked each other questions. It gave Sweet and Kidman an opportunity to directly challenge Gideon, who pushed both of her opponents to critique Collins.

Gideon asked Sweet about the Republican incumbent’s vote for a 2017 tax bill, which Sweet criticized. She then asked Kidman about Collins’ votes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh and other Trump judicial nominees. Kidman described many of the votes as “disheartening.”

Then, Sweet challenged Gideon over her participation in public debates, noting that she and Kidman have met for forums without the frontrunner, including some on TV. Gideon said that accessibility was a priority for her campaign, noting that she has held public events and virtual town halls throughout her campaign where she takes questions directly from voters.

Kidman challenged the Gideon on money in politics. Gideon has advocated for campaign finance reform, including overturning the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck limits on outside spending in elections. Her campaign has also raised record sums.

In response, Gideon noted that her campaign has rejected contributions from corporate political action committees during her Senate run, though her legislative leadership PAC took money from businesses and many of the committees that have donated to her in this cycle have taken corporate PAC money. She said her record in the Legislature showed she would stand up against corporate interests.

Kidman also asked Sweet why she chose to run for Senate two years after placing third in a gubernatorial primary. Sweet said she realized that many of the problems affecting Mainers needed to be addressed at a federal level.

Gideon, who is backed by national Democrats, has been the primary target of attacks from Collins’ campaign and national Republican groups. Sweet has been endorsed by several major progressive groups. Kidman, who would be the first non-binary senator, characterized a lack of political experience as a “benefit, rather than a hindrance” and cited a legal background qualifying them to understand federal policy.

Absentee voting for the primary has been underway for several weeks, with more than 45,000 Democratic voters already having submitted ballots through July 2, according to state data. Maine officials have been encouraging voters to vote absentee due to the coronavirus.

Several independents, including former Green party candidate Lisa Savage and conservative Max Linn, are also aiming to make the general election ballot, which will be finalized later this summer.