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

The rampant TV ads in Maine’s U.S. Senate race paint a dramatic picture of the upcoming general election, but there is a Democratic primary on Tuesday.

That three-way race between front-running House Speaker Sara Gideon, lobbyist Betsy Sweet and lawyer Bre Kidman has highlighted divisions within the Democratic Party over the model of politics to put forward as an alternative to Sen. Susan Collins, the four-term Republican senator who has seen her once-massive popularity drop significantly in recent years.

Collins might have always been a target for Democrats in a state won by their party’s presidential hopefuls since 1992. But her decision to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court sparked a wave of Democratic backlash, sent Gideon into the race and brought Republicans charging to the incumbent’s defense.

Gideon, who has polled as the prohibitive favorite in Tuesday’s primary, has the backing of national Democrats and has raised a record $23 million. Meanwhile, Sweet and Kidman are trying to break through on platforms more progressive than any statewide candidate in history.

Republicans have treated Gideon as the presumptive nominee as the sides have traded attacks in an increasingly nasty campaign, but the House speaker has used a playbook that will be familiar to Collins by touting her legislative record and talking often about bipartisanship.

Compromise has long been the calling card of Collins, who is the Republican senator closest to the political center, according to VoteView, but that distinction has seemed to matter less than ever in the era of President Donald Trump. Her once-high approval ratings have fallen into the 30s and fallen along partisan lines after years of support from Democrats.

Asked about her political role models, Gideon named several figures including former Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, whom Collins has long referred to as an inspiration. The state has never elected a female Democratic senator, with Gov. Janet Mills being the only woman from the party to win a statewide contest after her 2018 victory.

“At the end of the day, there are so many things we have in common in terms of what we want to achieve, but we just have different ideas about how we want to get there,” Gideon said in an interview this week.

In this March 2020 file photo, House speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, discusses legislative matters in the House Chamber at the State House, in Augusta, Maine. Gideon has highlighted some of her more liberal accomplishments in Augusta throughout her campaign for the U.S. Senate. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

At the same time, Gideon has also highlighted some of her more liberal accomplishments in Augusta throughout the campaign, including the creation of the Maine Climate Council and efforts to expand access to reproductive health care — an issue that allows her to contrast directly with Collins and the incumbent senator’s support of Kavanaugh.

Many Republicans will scoff at Gideon, who has taken a more hard-charging partisan approach at times, including in 2018 when she accused Republicans of “terrorism” as they withheld votes to extend a legislative session and later apologized for the remark. But her tack is emblematic of a divide that has emerged in her own party.

In this May 19, 2018, file photo, Betsy Sweet speaks at the Democratic convention in Lewiston. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Sweet, a longtime progressive advocate who finished third in the 2018 gubernatorial primary, named Smith as one of her role models as well. But her platform and Kidman’s run to the left of Gideon, drawing on progressive ideas including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal that many on the left see as a winning agenda in Maine, particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think what we call a progressive agenda now is really what most Maine people want,” Sweet said. “I’ve never met a Mainer who doesn’t think everyone should be able to have health care.”

On health care, Gideon has indicated support for allowing people to buy into Medicare, mirroring a plan from former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. She also highlights her work on climate change, but supports a slate of proposals similar to measures enacted in Maine, including emissions reduction benchmarks.

The consolidation around Gideon has irked some progressives in the state. Her opponents have been critical of her over her massive campaign apparatus and for skipping several forums. Her campaign notes that she has participated in three, including one hosted by Maine Public last week, and notes dozens of public events in which she has taken questions from voters.

Kidman has made a point of running a nontraditional campaign, decrying normal fundraising models as “wasteful.” The Saco lawyer, who would be the first non-binary senator and does not have a campaign staff, originally intended to hold fundraisers for local causes in all 16 counties. Post-pandemic, Kidman spent most of their limited campaign funds on virus relief efforts.

“Everybody wants to say, ‘We have to get money out of politics.’ Well, the best way to do it is not to put it there in the first place,” Kidman said.

Gideon has picked up the bulk of the endorsements in the race, including groups like the Maine AFL-CIO that have traditionally supported liberals. Sweet has been endorsed by national groups including Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, although her support has largely been limited to the party’s most progressive wing.

While many are taking the outcome of Tuesday’s primary for granted, there is a wide range of possibility. For Sweet, who said she is exhausted by the “mudslinging” of the race, it would mean putting her progressive agenda in the spotlight, emphasizing “what we are for,” she said, not just who the campaign is against.

Kidman stated goals of hiring a campaign manager and distributing a crowdfunded sum of $4 million that was reserved for the eventual Democratic nominee against Collins after the Kavanaugh vote back into Maine communities.

For Gideon, a win on Tuesday means her campaign against Collins would continue. The race has already seen more than $14 million in outside spending, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, including more than $9 million in negative ads targeting the House Speaker and the incumbent Republican and millions more in dark-money spending.

“We will continue to make sure that we’re out there with people on the campaign trail,” Gideon said.