The closely watched Maine Senate race enters a new phase tonight at 7 PM with the first general election debate among Republican incumbent Susan Collins, Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, Green candidate Lisa Savage and Independent Max Linn.
The debate will give candidates in one of the most expensive and pivotal battleground races of 2020 an opportunity to distinguish themselves side-by-side for the first time. However, the night's interactions may also be shaped by one key component: Maine’s use of ranked choice voting.
In a single-choice plurality electoral system, the independents Linn and Savage would be seen as “spoilers.” Rather than policies and ideas, debate would focus on their presence in the campaign itself. However, use of Maine’s ranked choice voting system invites different dynamics and strategies. In this race, the presence of Savage and Linn incentivizes Gideon and Collins to vie for the second-choices of the independents’ supporters. It would be a smart campaign move. This could lead to a more positive or inclusive approach from the two leading contenders as they attempt to appeal to voters beyond their base, especially since Linn and Savage’s backup choices may be pivotal to their margin of victory this November.
But don’t expect an entirely friendly exchange either. We could still see some mudslinging or negative campaigning tonight. After all, many candidates have spent decades learning to campaign one way, and non-RCV campaigns tend to reward more divisive tactics. And the two major candidates will be primarily focused on each other as the greatest threat. But keep an eye out tonight for any of these new approaches as each candidate makes their case. If you notice a notable lack of vitriol towards ideologically-comparable third party candidates, you may have ranked choice voting to thank.
The two independent candidates have already been eager to draw attention to Maine’s use of ranked choice voting, seeing it as an opportunity to break through the traditional two-party binary. Both have discussed whom supporters should select as a second choice, with Linn encouraging supporters to vote for Savage as their second choice, despite his closer ideological alignment with Collins. The progressive Savage did not return the favor, telling supporters to back Gideon as their second choice. Collins and Gideons have not said whom they would want their supporters to back as a second choice.
Photo by Mercedes Mehling