Two Years After the Kavanaugh Vote, This Maine Progressive Is Coming for Susan Collins

“It’s not just about flipping the Senate,” Betsy Sweet said. “It’s how we flip it.”

[Photo: Betsy Sweet answers a question as she gesticulates with her hands during an interview.]
Betsy Sweet told Rewire.News, "When you have to play by the broken system to get to a leadership position, then you end up having to defend the broken system. One cannot be a good representative if they’re in that position. I haven’t had to participate in a very broken system, so I’m not beholden to it." Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund / YouTube

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ vote for Brett Kavanaugh—after he faced multiple sexual assault allegations—was a defining moment not just for the “moderate” Republican senator, but for generations of women in Maine.

That’s what Betsy Sweet, a longtime Maine activist and one of three Democrats hoping to unseat Collins in November, told Rewire.News in an interview about her Senate run. Sweet, an advocate for low-income families for 37 years, believes Mainers are ready to move on from Collins, who joined her Republican colleagues to put a justice who could cast the deciding vote to eviscerate abortion rights on the U.S. Supreme Court.

While Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon (D) maintains a big lead in the Democratic primary race, Sweet continues talking to voters across Maine (via Facebook town halls these days) to promote a vision of fundamental change in the country’s health-care system and economic policies. Maine voters will choose the Democratic Senate candidate on July 14.

A Gideon victory over Collins—one of the most unpopular senators in the country—would be an improvement for some issues, Sweet said, but Gideon’s refusal to support transformative legislation like Medicare for All signals that she may not be committed to bringing real, lasting change to the nation’s broken health-care system. (Gideon, who helped pass legislation last year that made abortion care more accessible across Maine, did not respond to Rewire.News’ requests for an interview.)

“It’s not just about flipping the Senate,” Sweet said. “It’s how we flip it.”

Below is a lightly edited transcript of Sweet’s conversation with Rewire.News, in which the candidate addresses the intersection of reproductive rights and Medicare for All, Collins’ vote for Kavanaugh, her own litmus test for confirming a federal judge, and how she can beat Collins in a head-to-head contest.

Rewire.News: How much of a factor do you believe Susan Collins’ vote for Brett Kavanaugh will be in the 2020 election? 

Betsy Sweet: I think for women my age, who lived both before abortion was legal and after, that’s the thing that is the gut punch. People bared their souls to Collins. There was so much activism. People cried in front of her. Either she wouldn’t meet with them or she would sit there and nod while they pleaded with her to do the right thing.

[Collins] spent 45 minutes talking about Kavanaugh [during an address on the sexual assault allegations], and I literally felt like I was punched in the gut. That was hard. The Kavanaugh vote is the thing for a lot of people in Maine. Collins said she talked to Kavanaugh and he said … Supreme Court precedent won’t be in trouble. And now Roe is in major trouble.

I get Republicans coming up to me all the time and saying, “I’m glad you’re running. I’ll never vote for Collins again.” There’s a sense that she’s Mitch McConnell’s senator. Anytime McConnell needs her for a vote, she’s there for him, like she was on the [vote for the 2017 Republican tax bill] or Kavanaugh.

We have this opportunity to take this seat, and instead of just taking it, we can replace [Collins] with a strong progressive voice in the Senate.

You’ve talked to Mainers across the state about a health-care system that provides universal coverage. When Medicare for All comes up, do voters express concern about its coverage of reproductive health care, including abortion?

BS: Everywhere I go, health care is the No. 1 thing on everyone’s mind. They don’t care or buy this idea that everybody loves their private health insurance. More than ever, people realize that health care being tied to employment is a bad idea, a terrible idea. [Tens of thousands of] people in Maine have lost their jobs and their health insurance in the past two months. If we can’t get people to buy into the idea of Medicare for All after the pandemic, I’m not sure what it will take.

Not many people mention abortion. Even people who oppose abortion on religious grounds don’t want the government telling people what to do with their bodies. When people weigh the choices of getting health-care coverage versus telling people what to do with their bodies, they choose the former.

But could you see Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress attacking Medicare for All because it includes abortion care, just as they did with Obamacare? 

BS: Certainly. The people who benefit from the system as it is today will use any tactic they can find to maintain it. I think people who are anti-choice in the country, which is really a small minority, have found a way to pick at every single issue, including the Affordable Care Act. But it’s harder to pick away at a law when you say this covers everything for everyone, like Medicare for All does. I think there’s real power in saying no, we’re not compromising on this. And that’s what I hope to do. There is a momentum and a boldness with being honest with people. It’s what people need and want.

One thing Democrats are really good at is negotiating against themselves. A lot of the anti-choice movement is a political football, and they use [abortion] because it gets people riled up and it divides people. Will everyone agree with [Medicare for All’s inclusion of abortion care]? No. Will there be enough people who will want that coverage even if [it covers abortion]? Yes.

You helped write and pass Maine’s Family Medical Leave Act, the first of its kind in the country. What did that experience teach you? 

BS: People said, “You can’t do that. You can’t create a leave program like that. That’ll never pass.” But we did, and I’m proud of that.

I think this speaks to something larger: When you have to play by the broken system to get to a leadership position, then you end up having to defend the broken system. One cannot be a good representative if they’re in that position. I haven’t had to participate in a very broken system, so I’m not beholden to it.

If Democrats take the Senate majority in 2021, and President Trump wins reelection, would you support putting a stop to the president’s judicial appointments? Would you impose any kind of litmus test on judicial appointments? 

BS: Well, I would support stopping the appointment of incompetent judges. We have to look at how political the process has become. The judicial branch has become a mouthpiece of the party in power. I think we have to figure out how to do some sort of independent nominating commission that would put forward judicial nominees to the president.

I wouldn’t oppose everybody. I do oppose the politicization of the courts, and Roe would certainly be a litmus test for me.

Why do you think you’re a better candidate than Sara Gideon to take on Susan Collins?

BS: Gideon has a very managed campaign from Washington. I don’t think that’s what’s going to beat Susan Collins.

I think we’re at this moment in history where we have to decide which direction we’re going to go. Are we going to keep things essentially as they are, nibbling around the edges, but keeping the system how it is? Or are we going to say the political and economic system in our country has betrayed most of us? There’s a divide today. The divide that I see is between the political establishment that has nothing to do with people’s lives and the people they are supposed to represent.

It was Cory Booker who said we have two kinds of leaders: We have thermometers and thermostats—you know, people who test the temperature before taking a stance, and people who set the temperature. I believe I am a thermostat candidate.