The polls are in Sara Gideon’s favor. So are the finances. The speaker of the Maine House of Representatives seems close to making history as the second woman of Indian origin in the U.S. Senate. She is seeking to oust longtime incumbent Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of the most moderate Republicans in Congress and flip the state to give Democrats an edge in the U.S. Senate.
On Jan. 3, 2017, Kamala Devi Harris, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, made history by becoming the first Black and the first South Asian American woman to represent California in the U.S. Senate. Like Harris, Gideon, 48, is half Indian. Born and raised in Rhode Island, she is the daughter of immigrants — her father is from India, while her mother is a second-generation Armenian American, whose parents escaped the Armenian holocaust. Gideon moved to Maine after meeting her husband, Ben Benjamin Rogoff Gideon, a personal injury trial lawyer. Gideon is serving her her fourth term in the Maine House of Representatives, and her second term as speaker.
According to a recent RealClearPolitics’ average of polls conducted in the state, Gideon leads Collins by 4 percentage points. Similarly, an Oct. 15 Siena College/New York Times Upshot poll of likely voters showed Gideon ahead by 5 percentage points – at 49 percent to Collins at 44 percent – with 6 percent undecided.
Along with a lead in the polls, Gideon has a fundraising advantage as well. Centralmaine.com, citing Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, said, “Gideon’s campaign raised $63 million, $39 million of which came in just the previous quarter.” Gideon reported $20.7 million in available funds as of Oct. 14, as per the FEC, while “Collins raised roughly $8 million during the third quarter plus $1.7 million during the first two weeks of October.”
In September, The Hill reported that Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a publication at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics that covers elections, shifted the race between Gideon and Collins from “toss-up” to “lean Democratic.” The report said that the change in the rating “is the latest sign of trouble for Sen. Susan Collins, who is among the most vulnerable GOP senators facing reelection this year.” The New York Times observes that “the race will turn much less on Ms. Gideon’s record, or even her political positions, than on what Maine voters think about Senator Collins.”
Collins has been in Maine politics for much longer, but Gideon has developed a following in the state. She supports allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs, and a prohibition on pharmaceutical company “pay to delay” agreements. A supporter of women’s rights, Gideon’s campaign promises to focus on women’s healthcare and reproductive rights. Gideon has garnered endorsements from influential groups like Emily’s List, as well as the Maine AFL-CIO, which represents some 160 plus unions across Maine. Gideon has also drawn support from the 10,000-15,000-strong Jewish community. The Jewish News of Northern California, formerly known as Jweekly, notes that Gideon’s popularity within the community is not just because of her marriage to a Jewish lawyer, but because of her liberal policies “which appeal” to the community.
Collins, meanwhile, has faced backlash in recent years, most notably for coming out in favor of confirming President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who was facing sexual misconduct allegations, in 2018. Last week she became the only Republican who voted against Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. She is also the only Republican senator on the ballot this year who has not endorsed President Trump, as per the Times.
Highly-Contested Senate Race
The Maine Senate race has been in the spotlight for more than a year and has been described by researchers at the Wesleyan Media Project as “the most negative U.S. Senate race in the country.” Democrats are four seats away from control of the U.S. Senate, three if Joe Biden wins the presidential election and Kamala Devi Harris, as vice president, becomes the deciding vote. There are 35 seats up for election, 23 with Republican incumbents and 12 with Democrats, and anywhere between five and nine are seen as likely to flip. The GOP states seen as most vulnerable are Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Iowa, Kansas, Georgia, Montana — and Maine.
Indian American Democrats and community activists told this writer that Gideon’s win will help Democrats get things done. One of them is longtime Democratic Party and community activist Shekar Narasimhan, the founder and chairman of AAPI Victory Fund, the first and only Asian-American super PAC, which endorsed Gideon.
“We liked Sara and endorsed her so she could tell her story and connect to the Indian American community,” he told this writer. “And folks have stepped up. She can defeat Sen. Collins who has vacillated on issues of serious concern.”
Sanjay Puri, chairman and founder of the U.S.-India Political Action Committee (USINPAC), told this writer that Maine is “one of the key races” for the Democrats to take back the Senate. “This will be one of the prime races that needs to be watched,” he says. USINPAC is a bipartisan, political organization representing the interests of more than 3.2 million Indian Americans.
Improving Lives, Making a Difference
Gideon’s foray into politics was not planned. In previous interviews, including one published in Medium, she talks about how a phone call meant for her husband gave her the idea to run for public office in 2009.
“Years ago, when my three kids were all under the age of five, I came home to a message someone had left for my husband, Ben on our answering machine asking if he would consider running for our local town council seat,” she says in the interview. “When I heard that message I thought — actually — I think that’s the right job for me and a place where I can really make a difference. So I ran for that office, and I won.”
\And since then, she has assumed various roles in the state – from the Freeport Town Council to being a state representative to serving as Speaker of the State House. And throughout those portfolios, Gideon says she has “always believed that the sole purpose of public service is to improve the lives of the people around us.” Over the years,” she says in the Medium interview that she has learned along the way that “if you’re willing to work with others, it’s still possible to get things done” And this applies to Washington, D.C., as well she said.
Who Is Sara Gideon?
Although there is not much information on Gideon’s father, news reports say he immigrated from India and worked as a pediatrician in Rhode Island, where Gideon, the youngest of four children, grew up. In the interview published in Medium, Gideon says that her parents “set such a strong example of how to balance work and family and how to devote yourself to bettering the world around you.”
Gideon graduated from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she also worked as an intern for U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, Democrat of Rhode Island. She spent most of her career as an advertising account executive at USA Today.
She is a past member of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, where she worked to lower energy costs, encourage increased energy efficiency and promote clean and renewable energy to capitalize on Maine’s natural resources and build a clean-energy economy. She also served as assistant majority leader for House Democrats in the 127th Legislature.
Citing the 1989 East Greenwich High School yearbook, the East Greenwich News reported that during her senior year, Gideon was a football cheerleader, ran track, wrote poetry, and was named to the prom court.
In an interview with the Maine State Legislatures magazine, Gideon said that when she has spare time, “I just like to fold back into my family and my community. I am the person who empties the dishwasher, takes out the garbage and moves the kids from place to place. We do a lot of skiing, canoeing, kayaking and swimming, and I horseback ride with my daughter. I also spend a lot of time on the sidelines just watching the kids play. And that is the realistic life of a 40-something mother of three and speaker of the House. It’s the best I can do.”