Now that she’s officially in, Democratic Senate candidate Shenna Bellows has her work cut out for her in trying to take on Sen. Susan Collins, the popular, moderate Republican running for her fourth term.
Collins has already shown she can thrash formidable opponents who are well-known and proven fundraisers – neither of which describes Bellows – in her last two re-election campaigns, topping Chellie Pingree in 2002 and then-Rep. Tom Allen in 2008. The Allen race was particularly impressive as she won by more than 20 points in a year President Barack Obama won Maine by 17 points.
Bellows hopes to gain traction by attacking Collins on two fronts – on social issues from the left and on privacy-big government issues on the right, or more accurately, the libertarian side. Collins ostensibly has vulnerabilities in both those areas – she’s not come out in full-throated support of gay marriage, though she’s been a leader on other gay rights issues such as the repeal of the military’s ‘Don’t’ Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy and was the lead Republican sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
The privacy issues could be Collins’ largest vulnerability, as it were. She’s the former chair of the Senate’s Homeland Security committee, which oversaw the implementation of the Patriot Act. The much-protested legislation was seen by many as a massive civil liberties breach, though supporters argue it was full of necessary security precautions in the wake of 9/11. Collins no longer serves on that committee, but was recently appointed to the Senate Intelligence Committee which has found itself in the spotlight as federal government leaker Edward Snowden has reignited a debate over alleged National Security Agency spying on U.S. citizens and world leaders.
As the former leader of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, Bellows is well-versed in arguing against government overreach into the private lives of citizens and the message certainly resonates with many Mainers.
But the problem for Bellows is this: the crux of the argument over national security and intelligence practices is whether or not you trust the government and officials involved to have the tools they are using. And Mainers already decided – in a landslide – that they did trust Collins back in 2008 when Allen tried to hit her on similar fronts. She’s done nothing to betray that trust since.
So what Bellows really needs to win is to dig in on local issues and find a soft spot in Collins’ armor. It won’t be easy, as Collins and her staff are exceptionally tuned into local politics and has maintained near unbreakable ties in the state. But Bellows needs to make a connection with Maine voters on something other than national battles that strike Mainers more on a philosophical level rather than on the gut level. In any case, it’s a steep climb ahead.