Money doesn’t buy a Senate seat
By Matthew Gagnon
On Tuesday evening, Maine sent a powerful message to the nation: We cannot be bought.
That’s what Sara Gideon and her allies thought they could do when they decided to take on Sen. Susan Collins in this year’s U.S. Senate race here in Maine. To those plotting out the campaign in the corridors of power in Washington, Maine was a winnable race if only they poured in an unprecedented torrent of cash, tore down Collins’ reputation, and spent tens of millions promoting Gideon as an alternative.
That plan would end up being executed to perfection, with Gideon collecting $4 million in what I consider to be extortion money meant to bribe Collins into voting against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, on her way to raising nearly $70 million, dwarfing Collins’ own efforts.
There was just one problem with their strategy: Money doesn’t buy votes.
Oh, certainly, the lack of money can matter. Not having enough to run a campaign that fully makes your case to the voters will mean that you leave some votes on the table. You need money, and yes you do need a lot of it.
But you don’t need the most money. In fact, as we have observed time after time in American politics — and right here in Maine as well — candidates that have “too much” money can often harm their own prospects, by making themselves obnoxious to the voters.
That was certainly one of Gideon’s problems in this race. On Tuesday morning while listening to the radio, I heard the exact same Gideon ad — her telling stories about people she remembers from the campaign — no less than a dozen times in a couple of hours, and after each successive ad, my blood pressure rose significantly.
Trying to watch a simple football game this past Sunday meant that I was forced to watch back-to-back-to-back-to-back political ads, nearly all of which were for Gideon. Gideon was annoying my son when he was trying to listen to Spotify while studying on Monday.
We simply couldn’t get away from her, and I think the “annoyance factor” had a lot to do with Collins’ ultimate triumph this year.
Not that Collins doesn’t deserve a lot of the credit for her own win. People have underestimated her for a long time, and in the past month I had hundreds of conversations with panicked Republican voters who thought she was going to lose, and lose bad. But Collins knows how to put together a world-class political operation, and get out the vote among key constituencies in very important areas.
Consider that Collins beat Gideon in many communities that voted comfortably for Joe Biden for president over Donald Trump. In Lewiston, Biden beat Trump by roughly 2,300 votes, while Collins ran up a 400-vote margin over Gideon. In neighboring Auburn, Biden was up by 1,000 votes while Collins was herself up 1,000 votes. In Bangor, Biden managed to beat Trump by a whopping 3,100 votes, while Collins edged out Gideon by a little more than 100.
All over the state, ticket splitting was the norm, ultimately resulting in a resounding win for Collins, even as Trump lost Maine by roughly 10 points.
Collins’ victory is a testament to the basic block and tackling of politics, and public service. Rather than trying to purchase a massive media campaign, she spent her time, energy and money organizing voters. She had her work as a U.S. senator — particularly in the crafting of the Paycheck Protection Program, as well as decades of constituent service — to fall back on. And, she had in her back pocket Bill Green, the undisputed MVP of this election cycle in Maine.
But beyond all that, she has a long career of service, a strong reputation, and real connections with real voters, all of which insulated her from the effect from the onslaught of national money and television ads.
Those are things that money just can’t buy.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland.