Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon gets a tour of ReVision Energy in South Portland in August 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

FARMINGTON, Maine — At an outdoor event next to a farmhouse recently converted into a beer garden, House Speaker Sara Gideon, the Democrat facing U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in a contentious race, took questions on health care, climate change and the judiciary.

A supporter then asked how she could convince a family member that it was OK to vote for a candidate born in Rhode Island. Gideon, who moved to Maine in 2004 along with her husband, a Portland native, has a ready answer about why she chose to raise her family here.

“I wish my parents had made the wonderful decision to move here before I was born, and I could have been born here and lived all my life in this incredible place,” she said earlier this month. “But that wasn’t the case.”

Republicans have highlighted that Gideon has spent most of her life in other places, the latest in a barrage of attacks that have seemingly had little effect on polls as the bitter and nationalized race enters its final stages. Collins joined her allies along those lines last week, contrasting the “generations” of family history in Maine — centered in Caribou — with the decade-and-a-half Gideon has spent in Freeport in an interview with Politico.

It is an extension of a long-held debate over what it means to be a real Mainer, an amorphous term that has often excluded people “from away” — or born in other states — no matter how long they have lived here, as well as residents from southern or coastal regions. It comes at a time when many question whether Maine, given its aging population, needs to be more welcoming.

“Maine has a very strong identity as a state,” said Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington who has studied the politics of candidates from away.

That stems in part from a higher-than-average share of residents who were born here compared to other states. But demographics are also changing — about 42 percent of Mainers over the age of 25 were born elsewhere, according to a Governing analysis of Census data

Without newcomers, Maine would face a large population decline and a corresponding drop in the tax base that supports its aging population. It is one of a handful of states that has experienced more deaths than births in recent years. A state report last fall forecasted a 65,000-person contraction in the workforce over 10 years without “robust countermeasures.”

For the most part, voters don’t seem to care whether candidates were born in Maine “unless they have some other reason for disliking somebody,” said Melcher, who calls this the “cherry-on-top theory.” 

His research on Maine legislative candidates in the early 2000s found native-born Mainers were at most only slightly overrepresented in the Legislature compared to lawmakers born in other states. He suggests this is because Mainers grow to like people not born here once they get to know them, even if they are wary at first.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District, was born in Minneapolis and moved to Maine as a teenager. Sen. Angus King, a popular independent who caucuses with Democrats and a former two-term governor, grew up in Virginia and moved to Maine after graduating law school. The legendary Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, Collins’ role model, was defeated in 1972 by Democrat Bill Hathaway, a Massachusetts native.

Asked about her comments to Politico, Collins told the Bangor Daily News she did not intend for her comments to be interpreted negatively toward Mainers from away, saying Maine should welcome more people, especially in northern areas losing population. She said she intended to show a contrast in experience, saying she knows the state “like the back of my hand.”

“I think I have a good feel for the needs of the people of Maine, regardless of where they live,” Collins said last week.

Gideon talks regularly about her local involvement in Freeport and experience in the Legislature, getting to know other lawmakers and working on statewide issues. But her hometown — also referenced by Collins to Politico — leads to a secondary argument about what “real Maine” is. 

Parts of the state typically not considered to fit that term are the state’s wealthier southern and coastal regions, including Freeport. There is a political element to that. In a Bangor Daily News poll released last week finding Gideon leading Collins by 1 point, the two candidates had mirroring margins by congressional district — the Democrat up 15 points in the liberal 1st District and the Republican up 14 points in the more conservative 2nd District.

Joe Bruno, a pharmacy chain CEO who grew up on Long Island but settled in Raymond as served as the Republican House minority leader in the early 2000s, supports Collins and questions whether a senator from southern Maine could effectively represent the whole state.

“There was a saying in the Legislature, ‘it’s a Portland bill,’ meaning the bills that came out of the representatives from the Portland area were discounted because Portland doesn’t represent our Maine,” Bruno said.

Gideon’s allies counter that she has experience and knowledge from working on statewide issues as House speaker. The legislative accomplishments she touts, such as a bill to expand access to an opioid overdose antidote, have little to do with one part of the state or another.

“When you serve as speaker, very often you have to be concerned about your district, but you also need to look at what’s happening statewide because you’re representing the other legislators as they’re trying to do their jobs,” said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1964 and served 10 terms as speaker.

On the campaign trail, Gideon has stuck to issues over her background, focusing on health care in the final weeks before Election Day. But she has not looked back on her decision to move to Maine 16 years ago.

“It was the best decision that I — in my entire life — have ever made,” she said.

BDN writer Nick Sambides Jr. contributed to this report.

Watch more: