AUGUSTA, Maine — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and House Speaker Sara Gideon were no closer to debating in their massive 2020 race on Friday, two days after the Republican incumbent heard the Democratic challenger’s request for five debates and suggested 16.
The negotiation over debates was waged through the media on Wednesday. Gideon suggested five debates beginning in August. When alerted to that at an event in Gorham, Collins laughed and said she would like 16 debates in each county starting that night.
It would have been practically impossible to secure such a debate on short notice, but the point was made. Gideon said her campaign would negotiate with Collins. That has not happened and there is nothing scheduled as their independent challengers try to edge into the chatter in a race that has already seen record fundraising .
Gideon has held narrow leads in recent public polls in the race. Vulnerable Republican incumbents have been challenging opponents to debates across the country — including President Donald Trump — hoping to foist attention on them and elicit mistakes that will draw attention. If their challenger calls for debates first, incumbents have pushed for more.
Collins is a confident debater. In 2008, she took on U.S. Rep. Tom Allen 10 times in a race that was expected to be competitive but turned into a 20-point blowout in a Democratic year. When the senator’s longshot 2014 challenger pressed for 10 debates, Collins agreed to five.
That guided Gideon’s request, but the challenger seemed unwilling to take Collins up on the higher total on Friday. Her campaign declined to say whether it has communicated with Collins’ team about setting up a debate. A Collins spokesperson said they have not reached out.
In a statement, Gideon spokesperson Will Simons said the candidate “looks forward to laying out her vision for how she’ll work for Maine people in the Senate,” but referred a reporter to the campaign’s Wednesday news release on debates. Collins spokesperson Kevin Kelley said the senator is “ready to debate any topic, at any time, in every county.”
Both sides have made their opponents’ willingness to face questions a cudgel. Gideon held a variety of small, in-person events but only participated in a few debates with her opponents Bre Kidman and Betsy Sweet during the primary. Only one was televised. Democratic activists have pressured Collins to hold town hall events in recent years.
Amid the din, independent candidates have pressed for inclusion. A joint statement from Lisa Savage, Max Linn and Tiffany Bond — the latter of whom is suing to get ballot access while arguing the coronavirus rendered state requirements too onerous — demanded they be part of the process, saying excluding them would be “undemocratic, dismissive of Maine voters, and wholly unacceptable.”