Lou Kornreich’s Shabbat table is a microcosm of the Maine Jewish community. And he doesn’t like it.
“When I have a discussion at the Shabbos table, there are those on the left who are angry at Susan and those on the right who staunchly support her,” the retired judge told me, describing increasingly fraught Friday night meals in Bangor.
The intensity unsettles him.
“It’s just politics,” Kornreich said.
“Susan” is Susan Collins, the 67-year-old Maine Republican who is seeking a fifth term in office and for years has traded on her reputation as a moderate to win support from independents and some Democrats. It’s a formula that may no longer work in the polarized age of President Donald Trump, whom Collins voted to acquit during his January impeachment trial.
A recent poll showed Sara Gideon, the 48-year-old Democratic speaker of the Maine House, leading Collins by 4 points, just outside the 3.1 percentage point margin of error. In her last election, in 2014, Collins won with 68 percent of the vote.
Democrats nationwide think Gideon has momentum. They have been pouring money into her campaign — it’s already the most expensive race in Maine history — and of early July, she had outraised Collins $23 million to $16 million, according to Open Secrets. Former President Barack Obama endorsed Gideon on Monday. Trump backed Collins in December.
It’s an election that has excited unusual attention among Maine Jews, who number 10,000 to 15,000, and national political Jewish organizations — and not just because Gideon is married to a Jewish lawyer. Here’s why.
A core race in the quest
to control the Senate
Democrats are four Senate seats away from control of the upper chamber — three if Joe Biden wins the presidential election and his 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 — just one of them a vulnerable Democrat, Doug Jones of Alabama. The GOP states seen as most vulnerable are Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Iowa, Kansas, Georgia, Montana — and Maine.
The expectation among Democrats now is that the party’s factions set aside differences and support the likeliest Democratic flippers, and that’s no less true for Jewish Democrats. The political action committees associated with left-leaning J Street and the centrist Democratic Majority for Israel are all in for Gideon in Maine.
The importance of a PAC’s endorsement is not just in its direct contributions, but the signal it sends to donors with an ideological affinity to the PAC.)
J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said competitiveness was a primary factor in determining whom to back. “It’s always been J Street’s strategy that we would use our fundraising ability to move millions of dollars through competitive candidates to help them win,” he said.
The PAC is backing her primarily because she brings Democrats closer to taking the Senate, said Ilya Braverman, J Street’s national political director.
The Democratic Majority for Israel PAC’s president, Mark Mellman, said that Gideon is “the best chance we have of defeating Susan Collins, who traded her reputation for independence for full membership in the Donald Trump fan club.”
Kavanaugh and impeachment
There was a time that Jewish political donors — like Jewish voters, a mostly liberal cohort — were open to backing Republicans. One litmus test for donors was where the Republicans stood on reproductive choice. One by one, as the political arena became more polarized, Republican advocates of abortion rights either quit (Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine) or were ousted (Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois).
Collins was the last woman standing, at least in the Senate, and she fell two years ago by her own sword — by the lights of these donors — when she voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. Collins said at the time that she believed Kavanaugh would not support cases that undermine the Roe v. Wade precedent establishing abortion rights.
But in May, Kavanaugh dissented on a majority opinion that overturned a Louisiana law that might have shut down abortion clinics in the state. Gideon has used that vote against Collins in her campaigning, and it resonates for Jewish donors.
“Susan Collins was our last Republican, I mean, she made us bipartisan,” said Hollis Wein, director of communications for JACPAC, a Midwestern Jewish PAC that focuses on reproductive rights, church-state separation and Israel.
“Sadly, Susan made it very easy for us to walk away when she supported [Neil] Gorsuch,” a Supreme Court justice named in 2017, “and then Kavanaugh. After she chose to support those two Supreme Court nominees, to us it was clear that she was no longer in our corner and that she was no longer pro-choice.”
The Kavanaugh vote was especially fraught. Accusations that he committed sexual assault as a teenager divided Democrats and Republicans, and Trump made the vote a test of loyalty. One Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, effectively opposed Kavanaugh. Two more from the party could have nixed his nomination, and expectations were high that Collins would be one of them.
A similar dynamic played out this year with the Senate trial on Trump’s impeachment for soliciting Ukraine’s assistance in campaigning against Biden. A lone Republican, Mitt Romney of Utah, voted to convict, with Collins and a handful of Republicans waiting until the last moment to join in acquitting Trump.
Halie Soifer, the director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, whose PAC also is backing Gideon, said Collins would forever be haunted by her claim after the conviction that Trump “learned” from the ordeal and will be “much more cautious.” His angry purge of impeachment witnesses since then suggests otherwise.
The Israel question
Gideon won’t offend anyone in the Democratic mainstream when it comes to Israel. Her statement on Israeli plans to extend its sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria condemns the prospect, but does not threaten any repercussions — even as Democrats increasingly are prone to say out loud that Israel could pay a price in how assistance is delivered if it goes ahead with annexation.
Earlier this year Gideon, as Maine’s House speaker, took the lead in passing a resolution that recognized the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. That definition includes some forms of attack on Israel, stirring controversy on the left.
The Republican Jewish Coalition’s PAC has endorsed Collins, and she still commands loyalty from pro-Israel donors who eschew partisanship and favor incumbents with proven pro-Israel bona fides. Two nonpartisan pro-Israel PACs are also backing Collins: NORPAC and Pro-Israel America, started by former top officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Jeff Mendelsohn, Pro-Israel America’s director, told me that “if Susan Collins is reelected, she will continue to be a strong vocal advocate for the U.S.-Israel relationship — I can say that with certainty. That’s why we endorsed her.”
Aside from her marriage to Benjamin Rogoff, we know nothing about Gideon’s personal Jewish connections. Four Maine rabbis declined to comment on whether Gideon is involved in the state’s Jewish community.
Kornreich did not know whether Gideon was directly involved in the Jewish community. Nor did Patricia Hymanson, a Jewish state representative from York and Ogunquit, at the state’s southern tip.
Her advocates say that she is sensitive to issues that Jewish liberals consider critical, such as abortion, preserving the social safety net and immigration (Gideon’s father is an immigrant from India and her mother is of Armenian descent).
“Her issues are health care and justice, on racial justice, justice for women around reproductive rights,” Hymanson said.
The Jewish Democratic Council of America has made Maine one of 14 states in which it is dedicating resources to get out the Jewish vote. Kornreich said that was a smart move as small as the Jewish population is in the state.
“Jewish voters tend to vote Democratic and they can make the difference,” he said.
Hymanson said Gideon, as House speaker, introduced a practice of mixing up Republican and Democrats in the seating plan, ending the tradition of seating them in opposing aisles.
“It shows her bipartisan nature and willingness to cross the aisle,” Hymanson said. “She listens.”
Kornreich said Gideon’s tack to the center could win her the seat — and might earn her his vote, although he is leaning now toward Collins, whom he has known for years.
“Susan is a friend, she has done tremendous things for the state and admirable things for the country, I like her personally and I like her politics,” he said. “But Sara is a very attractive candidate.”