Independent U.S. Senate candidate Lisa Savage talks with voters at a farmers market in Lewiston on Sunday, Sept. 6. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

When U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and House Speaker Sara Gideon clashed in a Friday debate in a race that has attracted more than $80 million in fundraising, a little-known candidate on a shoestring budget walked out most widely praised.

Lisa Savage, an independent teacher from Solon who has never held elected office, seems to be having a minor moment when she should be getting drowned out. As the Republican senator and her Democratic foe fought and fellow independent Max Linn clashed with moderators, she calmly laid out a ultra-progressive message that many appreciated even if they did not concur.

The reaction may have been different without Maine’s first-in-the-nation ranked-choice voting system. It allows Savage to run to Gideon’s left without liberal voters worrying her presence could help Collins win. It comes as third-party candidates across the U.S. have faced challenges with ballot access amid Democratic concerns that Green Party candidates in the midwest could flip the 2020 election to President Donald Trump.

Savage maintains that she probably would not be running if Maine did not use ranked-choice voting. She plans to list Gideon as her second choice as her campaign uses the slogans “Vote Blue Number Two” and “Sara Second” to encourage supporters to do the same.

It’s a practical turn for a longtime activist known for protests against war and at Bath Iron Works, where she was arrested in 2019. She hopes to use a campaign that raised less than $100,000 as of June 30 to turn out disaffected young people on issues from climate change and student debt that she sees as neglected.

“These are millennials and younger who are saddled with a lot of student debt, very concerned about climate emergency, struggling without Medicare for All or some form of universal health care,” Savage said, “and now they’ve found their way to our campaign.”

This month, she launched TV ads highlighting support for single-payer health care, which a majority of Americans at least somewhat favor, according to polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation. She backs the Green New Deal, a loose progressive litmus test on climate.

Neither are going anywhere in Congress amid divided government. Many Democrats are still reluctant to support them. Gideon, for example, backs the kind of public-option health plan championed by former Vice President Joe Biden, her party’s presidential nominee, and a set of emissions and clean-energy goals mostly modeled on past state action in Maine.

Given that, lobbyist Betsy Sweet of Hallowell, who challenged Gideon from the left in the primary and endorsed her over Collins after finishing a distant second, noted there was an open lane for Savage to appeal to progressive voters in the November election.

“If you just watched the TV commercials, and you really cared about climate change, or you really cared about health care, or you really cared about Medicare for All, there’s no room for that,” Sweet said.

Independent candidate Lisa Savage answers a question during the Decision Maine debate in Portland on Sept. 11. Credit: Brianna Soukup | Portland Press Herald

The coalition Savage is looking to build encompasses left-leaning voters who might otherwise be reluctant to turn out and progressives who see no harm in ranking her first and Gideon second. She is also hoping to pick up support from voters who are simply tired of the two-party system after leaving the Green Party for an easier path to qualifying for the ballot early this year.

“I think that to most voters seeing the ‘I’ after my name will be the most compelling piece of information,” Savage said. “I mean, people that are super politically engaged might care a lot about, ‘She was in the Green Party.’ But most voters are not terribly engaged.”

The role of third-party candidates has long been relatively large in Maine politics. It was the first state to enshrine a version of the Green Party in 1984. While its ranks have grown faster than the major parties in recent years, it has receded in influence after fielding candidates in four straight gubernatorial elections from 1994 to 2006.

Independents have often fared better here, though the best examples have been wealthy people with histories in establishment politics. Now-U.S. Sen. Angus King was twice elected governor as an independent. He was a Democrat before and caucuses with them now.

Maine has a long history of electing governors with pluralities, but the push for the 2016 referendum on ranked-choice voting here came during the divisive era of Gov. Paul LePage, who won his seat that way twice in 2010 and 2014 in races featuring an independent.

David Schwab, a Green activist from Wisconsin who has worked on national campaigns and advises Savage on communication, said the difference between Maine and other states in how non-major-party candidates are treated was like “night and day.”

In Wisconsin, where Democrats successfully kept Green presidential nominee Howie Hawkins off the ballot this week, Schwab said Greens were targeted with “intense avalanche of hate and vitriol.” Mainers familiar with ranked-choice voting were “more willing to engage in a civil, friendly, issue-based discussion,” he said.

But easier conversations do not necessarily equate to a large coalition. An AARP poll of the race last week found Collins and Gideon virtually tied and Savage at only 6 percent of votes, though she said her campaign has received an “outpouring” of support since the debate.

In 2018, former state Rep. Marty Grohman tried to use ranked-choice voting against U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District. Grohman, a former Democrat, aimed to overtake a little-known Republican and use second-place voters to oust Pingree.

He won just 9 percent of votes. It was a lesson that the new voting system has not necessarily translated into more interest in non-major-party candidates. They face many other obstacles. For Savage, none is bigger than the money behind Gideon and Collins.

“I don’t know if there’s been a massive change,” Grohman said. “If there has been, I haven’t seen it.”

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