The highlight of Thursday night’s debate between Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows was discussion about the impact of golf clubs in outer space and massages for rabbits’ feet.
More on that later.
The race between Collins and Bellows has not been close in the polls, with double-digit splits that are similar to the finishes for Collins’ two previous opponents: Chellie Pingree, who lost to Collins 58-42 percent in 2002; and Tom Allen, who lost 61-39 percent in 2008. Part of the reason Collins has such widespread and bipartisan support was evident Thursday evening as she and Bellows faced off in a televised debate hosted by WMTW.
Bellows, the former executive director of the ACLU of Maine, articulately and forcefully laid out a detailed platform built of individual freedom and economic parity that would confound almost anyone facing her on a debate stage. But Collins’ command of the issues, matter-of-fact defenses of her positions and an air of gravitas that she has built during more than 17 years in the U.S. Senate, were on full display.
On the issues, however, voters have clear contrasts to consider.
Homeland security/America’s military role
- Bellows has called for deep cuts to defense and intelligence spending domestically and abroad, including strong opposition to overseas wars and conflicts that she says we can’t afford and which have don’t make the U.S. any safer. She opposes sending ground troops to the Middle East to fight ISIS militants absent “a direct and imminent threat to the U.S.” and deeply condemned the “surveillance industrial complex,” including programs that collect data from wide swaths of Americans. She called for a repeal of the Patriot Act.
- Collins said the terrorist threat against America “has never been higher” and that domestic surveillance programs are necessary to root out threats, especially domestic terrorists. “I want to keep our country safe,” she said. “I think that’s government’s first priority.” Collins said she supports President Obama’s current efforts to encourage Middle Eastern countries to commit ground forces against the ISIS threat, rather than send American soldiers. She said she “can’t imaging why anyone would want to repeal the Patriot Act.”
- Collins favors a gradual increase of the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour but does not support going to $10.10 an hour, as Obama and others have proposed, because it would lead to widespread job losses. She said a livable wage for a “household” in Maine is $40,000 to $45,000 a year.
- Bellows has made raising the minimum wage to $10.10, with automatic increases tied to inflation, one of the central themes of her candidacy. “There are a lot of folks working full time here in Maine, or working two or three jobs, just make make ends meet and not making it.” Bellows did not identify a specific livable wage, though she said $21,000, which is what $10.10 an hour translates to annually, is not enough, especially in urban areas.
- Bellows emphasized investments in public works, education, and especially broadband internet and cell phone access as well as a pursuit of a renewable energy sector in Maine that she said would create jobs and “tackle climate change.” She pledged to fight against international trade practices that are “eviscerating” Maine’s manufacturing sector.
- Collins was quick to pivot to her cozy relationship with defense contractors in Maine, which has resulted in several labor union locals endorsing her candidacy. “First let me say that shipbuilding is so important to our state and there’s no one who’s been a stronger supporter of Bath Iron Works than I have.” She also advocated for targeted investments in workforce training that would help industrial sectors struggling to find workers, particularly machining.
Common Core/No Child Left Behind
Quick primer: The Common Core is a set of academic standards in mathematics and English/language arts that was developed by a consortium of states to set benchmarks for student progress. Forty-six states, including Maine, have adopted Common Core, though three of those states dropped it in 2014 amid growing controversy. No Child Left Behind was a George W. Bush-era mandate that all students gradually reach 100 percent proficiency on standardized testing and other measures. NCLB has been amended in recent years and renamed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
- Bellows said the Common Core and NCLB are harming schools. “We’re in this vicious cycle of testing and austerity,” she said amid an attack on Collins for supporting NCLB’s creation. “What we need to do is go back to basics to invest in school infrastructure and higher teacher pay and getting back to real public education, universal public education for all.”
- Collins said she is a supporter of both NCLB and the Common Core — though she acknowledged that neither is perfect — and said she will not support any efforts by the federal government to tell states how to run public schools. “I oppose strongly having the federal government dictate what teaching methods should be used,” she said.
The Affordable Care Act
- Bellows, who supports universal health care because “it is a fundamental human right,” attacked Collins for cosponsoring a bill to repeal the ACA and end health insurance for millions of people. “What we need to do is fix and strengthen it, not throw it out.”
- Collins said she fears that as more of the provisions of the ACA come into effect, individual insurance premiums will rise and businesses, particularly smaller ones, will drown in expense and paperwork. But she said she is not for outright repeal. “Now that it’s in effect I think we’re just going to have to fix the most egregious problems with it.”
- Both are in favor of comprehensive immigration reform and opposed to the president using executive privilege to grant citizenship to illegal aliens.
- In response to Collins describing how she has authored legislative fixes on a wide range of bills, including No Child Left Behind, Bellows had one of her strongest moments of the night: “Too often what we see in Washington are bipartisan bills that have some good elements but then some terrible consequences to our communities,” she said. “People don’t want a task force to study what went wrong with things like NCLB. What they want are good pieces of legislation in the first place, coalitions built around common ground rather than middle ground.”
- Collins, one of the more moderate Republicans in the Senate (a notion with which Bellows disagrees), emphasized that point, highlighted how she’s worked across the aisle, including four separate mentions of independent Maine Sen. Angus King, who endorsed Collins earlier this year.
Why vote for Susan? Why vote for Shenna?
- Bellows: “Elizabeth Warren [a rookie Democratic senator from Massachusetts] has proven that a young senator can be powerful.”
- Collins: “I have the relationships, the clout and the know-how to get things done for the people of Maine.”
Outer space golf clubs and rabbit foot massages
Asked what federal programs, she’d cut, Bellows said National Security Agency budgets for domestic spying. Collins said she would cut “programs where money hasn’t been spent appropriately” such as a NASA program “that looked at the impact of golf clubs in outer space” and a National Institute of Health study on “massage for rabbits’ feet.”
“Those are ones where I don’t think we should have an increase,” said Collins.
Bellows and Collins are scheduled for two more televised debates: 5:30 p.m. Monday on WGME and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday on WCSH.