Democrat Sara Gideon (left) and Susan Collins are pictured during the Decision Maine debate in Portland on Sept. 11. Credit: Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

In 1994, the first female gubernatorial nominee in Maine from either major party faced what a Bangor Daily News reporter characterized as a “series of setbacks” that included disagreements with right-wing Republicans and a false rumor partially related to gender.

She was Susan Collins, a former congressional staffer and state regulatory commissioner who narrowly won an eight-way Republican primary that year. Collins lost the general election, finishing third in a race won by independent Angus King. It was just the start of the fourth-term senator’s political career.

Few women have made it to the highest level of Maine politics. Since the famed Margaret Chase Smith was elected in 1940, only three Maine women — Collins, Olympia Snowe and Rep. Chellie Pingree — have been elected to Congress, compared with two dozen men over the same period. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, became Maine’s first female governor last year.

Collins’ rise in politics began as a staffer, a path that positioned her to step into the tradition of moderate Maine senators such as Snowe and Sen. Bill Cohen, her former boss. At the same time, Democrats, both in Maine and nationally, have invested in recruiting and electing women to office, contributing to significant gains at the state level here.

House Speaker Sara Gideon, Collins’ Democratic opponent, is a chance for them to translate that progress into Maine’s first Democratic senator in more than two decades, and the state’s first Democratic female senator ever.

“You have to be an exceptional woman to get through,” said Ashley McCurry, a strategist who leads Emerge Maine, a program that trains Democratic women to run for office. “There are mediocre men who run for office, there are mediocre male leaders, but women have to be exceptional.”

Gender has not been at the forefront of a race in which both major-party Senate candidates are women, but it represents a collision of two eras for women in politics. Collins, following in the tradition of moderate Maine Republicans, became part of an initial cohort of female senators to rise in politics on their own backgrounds. Gideon’s career spanned both sides of a post-2016 reckoning among Democratic women that sparked a new conversation about representation.

The contest between Collins, Gideon, and independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn has attracted national attention. Barring a shock — Linn, the only man in the race, has been polling around 2 percent — Maine will continue to have a female senator next year.

Maine was ahead of most states in women’s involvement in politics. The 1960 race between Smith and Democrat Lucia Cormier was the first between two women in Senate history. The pair shared a Time magazine cover and faced sexism in major media outlets, with a Washington Post reporter predicting “a real fur-flying political cat fight.” Smith won easily and there have been four Senate races between women in Maine since then. Collins has run three.

Collins got her start in Washington in the 1970s as a staffer to Cohen and later on a congressional oversight committee, jobs that helped her learn the minutiae of Senate procedure and policymaking that would become useful when she became a senator.

“It may have been a bit more unusual for younger women to play those roles, but right off the bat from a college intern to a young staffer to subcommittee staff director, she just demonstrated a grasp of the issues which was very impressive,” said Bob Tyrer, who was Cohen’s chief of staff and worked with Collins in the 1970s and 1980s.

After working in state government and for the federal Small Business Administration, Collins ran for governor in 1994, losing to King. Two years later, she ran for Cohen’s Senate seat after his surprise retirement and beat the runner-up in her gubernatorial race, former Gov. Joe Brennan, a Democrat.

When Collins entered the Senate in 1997, there were 20 Republican women in Congress. There are 22 now. Over that same period, the number of Democratic women has more than doubled, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

Maine had a relatively high representation of women in the Legislature in the 1990s, with similar numbers of Republicans and Democrats. But the approval of legislative term limits in 1993 — largely aimed at a powerful House speaker — had a side effect of pushing many women out. Increasing the share took a concerted effort. Gideon became a part of that.

Her stump speech often includes the story of how, when a neighbor asked her husband to run for town council in 2009, she decided to run instead. A few years later, she went through Emerge Maine and ran for and won an open House seat in Freeport.

The ranks of Democratic women have grown since. Maine elected a record number of women to the Legislature in 2018. In the House, there are 47 Democratic women — more than half the party’s caucus — compared with 11 Republican women, something McCurry credits in part to Gideon’s leadership on the issue.

“That was something that came about in a very purposeful way,” Gideon said. “You have to be determined that this is something that you want to do to recruit those women to run in order to get those numbers.”

Although training and recruitment remain a part of getting women into office, Democratic strategists have seen a monumental shift since 2016, when President Donald Trump’s election spurred a wave of activism among women and more female candidates than ever.

“Since 2016, things have changed, not just at the top with President Trump, but across the country,” said Emily Cain, a former Maine legislator and congressional candidate and the executive director of EMILY’s List, a national group devoted to electing Democratic women. “Having women at the table right now means we’re having a more complete conversation.”

Some of the same forces that have propelled Democratic women to run for office, including Trump’s election and concern about reproductive rights, have created problems for politicians like Collins.

“I think it’s gotten a lot harder to be a moderate,” Collins said, pointing to her decision to oppose any Supreme Court nominee advanced by Republicans before the election, which angered the president and some other Republicans while the senator got little credit for Democrats trying to oust her.

The politics have also taken a different tone. Collins decried sexism a few months ago after an ad from the Lincoln Project alleged Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, controlled her votes. It goes both ways — a scan of social media reveals complaints about Gideon’s voice and height while Republicans have peddled lines about how Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, would control her.

“I have never encountered, prior to this election, people — opponents, in this case — implying that my vote was controlled by anybody,” Collins said.

Mary Small, a former Republican state legislator from Bath and Collins ally who has known senator since the early 1990s, sometimes sees a rash of nasty comments on Collins’ campaign Facebook page, many with misogynistic undertones.

“I spent 30 years in the Legislature, 24 as an elected official and six as chief of staff, and I would rather not run for office right now, with the way the social media goes, because it’s just so nasty,” Small said.

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