State of the Union Reaction Highlights Susan Collins, Shenna Bellows Split

Between raising the minimum wage and brief mention of National Security Agency spying, President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday provided Mainers with a handful of issues highlighting some of the major differences between Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and her Democratic opponent Shenna Bellows.

Collins’ task is the same as it’s been for every general election: stay true to her Republican roots but don’t alienate independent and Democratic voters by echoing the increasingly extreme rhetoric of many in her national party.

Asked about her thoughts on Obama’s call for increasing the minimum wage and move to use executive power to pay federal contractors a minimum of $10.10 an hour, Collins told WGAN Radio Wednesday she’s open to an increase, but not at the expense of job creation.

“I think it’s been four or five years since we’ve raised the minimum wage that a good case can be made for a raise; but to say $10.10 is a substantial jump from $7.25,” she said.

Collins chastised Obama for not thinking more of small businesses – a key Maine constituency – and the impact raising the national minimum wage would have.

“Wouldn’t it have been better for the president to recognize that in a weak economy that an increase of that magnitude could well have an impact on job creation and on small business?” she said, adding that minimum wage is “not expected to be what you can make your entire life.”

“You can’t live on it,” she said. “Let’s come up with a package of incentives for job creation and job training.”

But for Bellows, who spoke with reporters Wednesday on a call hosted by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, that’s exactly the point: you can’t live on minimum wage as is.

“I understand first hand, having worked through high school and college waiting tables and worked retail at a local lobster pound and as a Subway sandwich artist, what it means to raise the minimum wage,” she said. “Hardworking Mainers and Americans all across the country are struggling because a gridlocked Congress is more concerned with corporate profits than workers’ well being. I think it should be higher than $10.10.”

Bellows and Collins have previously aired differences in their approach to the NSA spying scandal, highlighted by leaks from former government contractor Edward Snowden, but Bellows, former leader of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, also took Obama to task for not advocating for more privacy reforms.

“I didn’t think he took enough courage on was the issue of privacy,” she said. “Congress and the president have lost sight of our nation’s civil liberties and in an increasingly complex technological age it’s time to move past privacy rhetoric and commit to real privacy reform to protect individual liberty and renew public trust in government. We need to stop NSA spying, we need to repeal the Patriot Act.”

For Bellows, who posted impressive initial fundraising numbers, to realistically compete with Collins, ginning up support from all sides will be critical, something candidate is clearly aware of.

“I think these themes – economic populism, civil liberties, equal protection – can unite Democrats, progressives, Republicans, independents and Greens all across this country,” she said. “I will be a bold, progressive leader who will work across party lines to renew public trust in government, restore individual liberties and expand economic opportunity.”

And while she’s likely to be completely abandoned by the national Democratic Party, which needs to focus its resources on more winnable contests, associating herself with progressive groups might have diminishing returns: By and large, Mainers shy away from both extremes – conservative or liberal.

Rebekah Metzler

About Rebekah Metzler

Rebekah Metzler is a political writer with U.S. News and World Report, who hails from the state of Maine where she covered state politics for the Lewiston Sun Journal and MaineToday Media. She spent much of 2012 covering the presidential campaign and particularly enjoyed her time on the road in states like Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Ohio and Ohio. Metzler earned her master’s degree in journalism from Boston University and is a Bowdoin College grad.