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In Maine, a Race About the Issues Has Become a Referendum on Susan Collins

In challenging a seasoned incumbent, Ms. Gideon has played up her own record as a state legislator for the last eight years, half of them as House speaker, a role that is part wheedler, part enforcer, part compromiser. Legislation that she has sponsored, and that has needed Republican cooperation to pass, includes a series of antipoverty bills providing emergency funds to families in need, for instance, and supporting low-income parents seeking college degrees. To address Maine’s opioid crisis, she sponsored a bill to increase access to naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug.

“Sara was always able to work with Republican leaders to make sure those bills were as successful as possible and had bipartisan support,” said Drew Gattine, a Democratic state representative from Portland.

The outsize presence of Paul LePage, the foul-mouthed, tax-cutting, welfare-disdaining, press-hating, anti-immigrant Republican who was Maine’s governor from 2010 to 2018 and who boasted of being “Trump before there was Trump,” complicated matters in the state. Ms. Gideon had to make common cause with more moderate Republican legislative leaders to override the governor’s frequent vetoes, including Michael Thibodeau, the former president of the Republican-controlled Senate.

“One of the most important working relationships Sara built was with Michael Thibodeau,” Mr. Gattine said. “That’s what allowed us to even enact a budget in 2017.”

For his part, Mr. Thibodeau is supporting Ms. Collins in the Senate race. He left office in 2018, and in any case it is hard, in the current climate, to find a Republican legislator willing to admit to working happily with Ms. Gideon.

Indeed, the State Legislature has been all but paralyzed since abruptly adjourning in March because of the coronavirus crisis, with Republicans and Democrats unable to agree on the conditions for returning to Augusta to address a bunch of unfinished business, and each party blaming the impasse on the other. Pandemic-related issues aside, anti-Gideon Republican legislators paint a different picture of the speaker than Democrats do, saying it is not easy being a Republican in a Gideon-controlled chamber.

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