Dem to tap into grassroots in challenge

Bellows for Senate image

Democrats and conservatives have both tried to take down centrist Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) for years, to no avail.

But can a pro-pot, anti-NSA challenger finally be the one to topple the popular three-term incumbent? Democrat Shenna Bellows says yes.

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The former head of the Maine American Civil Liberties Union is one of a line of progressive candidates emerging this cycle who have been dubbed “Elizabeth Warren Democrats” for their willingness to push unabashedly progressive positions that had previously been third-rail issues, like marijuana legalization and single-payer healthcare.

But it’s those issues, Bellows said, that will help her galvanize Democrats come Election Day.

“Democrats in Maine are fired up. The base in Maine is more enthusiastic than ever before,” she said.

The state is about a third Democratic and a quarter Republican, with the rest of Maine’s voters registering as independents or another party affiliation. And in 2008, it was the only state with a Republican senator that President Obama carried — and Collins, in fact, outperformed Obama, by about 3 percent of the vote. She’s the only GOP incumbent up for reelection this year in a state Obama’s now won twice.

Bellows arrived at The Hill’s offices dragging her suitcase behind her, after a delayed flight had cut her schedule short, and lacking a candidate’s usual coterie of aides and advisers.

She slightly outraised Collins in the fourth quarter —bringing in $331,000 to Collins’s $315,000, although Collins still has more than $3 million in the bank — Bellows is running a minimalist campaign nine months from Election Day. She’s set a goal of raising $3 million in the race and is planning to focus heavily on grassroots engagement, phone banking and canvassing to get out the vote.

Bellows is known in Maine political circles as a lobbyist on progressive issues and for leading the successful effort to pass a ballot measure in 2012 legalizing gay marriage. She said she’ll use that playbook to topple Collins.

And in a small state like Maine, the grassroots engagement can make all the difference. To win, Bellows said her goal is to get just over 300,000 voters on her side.

That’s going to be a tough ask, however. Collins is popular in her home state, pulling more than 60 percent approval in a November poll. She outpaced Obama during her last election, in 2008, when Democratic turnout was particularly high.

But Bellows believes the country, and particularly the Pine Tree State, is shifting in a more progressive direction, giving her a better shot at taking down Collins than in 2008.

She pointed to Collins’s refusal to offer up her position on the same-sex ballot initiative in Maine, her vote against the Paycheck Fairness Act, her support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the Blunt Amendment, which would exempt religious institutions from the contraception mandate in ObamaCare, as well as her refusal to take a position on the $10.10 minimum wage, as ways the Republican is out of step with the state.

“I think that those particular votes, time and time again, she has voted with extreme elements of her party, rather than voting to represent Maine interests,” Bellows said.

Bellows herself supports the $10.10 minimum wage proposal Democrats are considering in the Senate but would like to go even farther, indexing it to inflation.

But, at times, she comes across as more closely aligned with libertarian Republicans than her own party.

She said it would be “incredibly exciting” to work with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to reign in the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs and dismantle the Patriot Act. She’s the only Senate candidate this cycle who’s for legalization, and she’s nabbed the endorsements of two pro-marijuana PACs because of it.

While the former National Rifle Association member said she supports gun rights, she is also advocating for some curbs, like universal background checks, and noted she dropped her NRA membership because “they became too extreme.”

And on healthcare, while she’s a rare candidate who criticizes the law for not going far enough, she also decried the individual mandate for much the same reason Republicans have taken issue with it.

“When I talk to people on the campaign trail, they are literally choosing between food and heating their homes in this cold winter.

And so the idea of one more bill, even if there’s a tax credit at the end of the year, is just too much for people to take,” she said.

“So yes, we certainly need to eliminate the individual mandate as it currently stands. It’s not going to work for some people.”

Bellows said she’s for a public option, the progressive position shared by another underdog Democratic candidate: Rick Weiland, running for Senate in South Dakota.

But as with Weiland, Republicans feel Bellows’s unapologetic liberalism makes her a poor fit for the state of Maine.

Though Maine went for Obama in 2008 and 2012, it hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1988, and it’s known for its independent leanings.

Brad Dayspring, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Bellows is “way too far outside the mainstream” for Maine.

“Angus King said that Susan Collins is ferocious on behalf of her constituents, and he’s one hundred percent right.  Susan Collins is a strong, independent woman, and an effective legislator who always puts Mainers first. If the Daily Kos declares statehood,

Shenna Bellows would fit in well, but in Maine she’s way too far outside the mainstream for independent minded voters,” he said in an email.

Collins, for her part, is known for her bipartisanship and her willingness to compromise with Democrats. She’s been lauded for her role in helping to end the government shutdown last year.

Bellows stands in stark contrast to that cooperation though, framing herself as a more partisan figure and pledging to stand up for progressive values if elected.

She said she wouldn’t exacerbate the gridlock in Congress if elected because she would work to connect with her opponents — but she used rhetoric reminiscent of that used by Republicans when declaring their intentions not to compromise with Democrats.

“Bipartisanship shouldn’t mean compromising one’s fundamental values in the name of getting something done,” Bellows said.

“What bipartisanship really should be is reaching out and sitting out and having conversations with people from different backgrounds and then moving forward.” 

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