Maine Democrat Tries to Make Marijuana and NSA Wedge Issues

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Clarke Canfield / AP

Shenna Bellows speaks to supporters at a kickoff rally launching her Democratic candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Portland, Maine, on Oct. 23, 2013

Susan Collins is the only Republican Senator facing re-election in a state carried by Obama in 2012. Yet her Democratic challenger, Shenna Bellows, a former Maine American Civil Liberties Union director, has received little outside financial funding or national political guidance.

The reason can be found in Collins’ moderate streak and high popularity. Every major election handicapper has projected an easy victory for the GOP this November in Maine, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which supports other first-timers like Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Michelle Nunn in Georgia, hasn’t even put Bellows on its map to a majority. So, what is this loner candidate to do? Bellows is relying on wedge issues to form, as she tells TIME, an “unusual coalition of support” around civil liberties, including legalizing marijuana.

On its face, the strategy has merit. Both marijuana and privacy concerns raised by the National Security Agency scandals attract anti-Washington voters from liberals to libertarians. Combined with help from a grassroots campaign and a Lincoln-like narrative, Bellows hopes to chip away at a 39-point hole, as registered by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP). (That poll, in November, found Collins was even beating Bellows by 14 points among Democrats.)

Portland, Maine’s largest city, legalized recreational marijuana overwhelmingly last year, but the state legislature has opposed measures to legalize, tax and regulate the drug. It has, however, allowed medical marijuana since 1999. “There is widespread support for more sensible drug-reform policy,” says Bellows, who sells herself as a “daughter of a carpenter,” raised without running water or electricity.

Two marijuana-advocacy groups have endorsed her — the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) — the latter providing the limit, $5,000, to her campaign, according to Dan Riffle, MPP’s director of federal policies. While that isn’t much money in a race that will cost millions, there are other ways in which the groups have aided Bellows, mainly in improving her name recognition.

“When you have a candidate that is willing to come out and support this, they receive lots of media attention, lots of grassroots support, lots of accolades from the public,” says Erik Altieri, NORML’s communications director. “And that really gets noticed by their competitors.” He notes that promarijuana candidates have forced others to change their positions in recent gubernatorial races in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Bellows’ strategy of using high-profile wedge issues — she also claims a role in shaping Maine’s unique anti-warrantless-cell-phone-tracking law — is a clear shot at Collins’ broad coalition. Collins has largely stayed out of the state’s marijuana debate, deferring to the “guidance from Maine’s law-enforcement and medical communities,” according to a spokesman speaking to a local newspaper, and has indicated that NSA’s metadata collection should continue under government supervision. Bellows says she is building an “extraordinary grassroots campaign,” with over 200 volunteers modeled off the 2012 same-sex marriage campaign she had helped lead to victory. “As we build that infrastructure and momentum, that will translate into increasingly positive polling and fundraising numbers that I will certainly hope will attract national attention,” she says. “At this point our focus is really to continue to mobilize the grassroots base.”

When confronted with Collins — who has an astounding 61% approval rating, according to the aforementioned PPP poll — Bellows knows she has little room to maneuver, reverting to the message that “right-wing Republicans” could control the Senate, including “climate-change deniers” on the Environmental Committee and “antichoice extremists” on the Judiciary Committee, if she loses. Brooks Hougesen, press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, responds that Bellows is an extreme candidate as well. “She’s not just outside the mainstream on pocketbook issues like health care and taxes, but on common-sense issues,” says Hougesen, pointing to her disapproval in 2006 of a “Support Our Troops” license plate on the grounds that it could be interpreted as a political statement.

Recently, Bellows has gained the notice of the national Democratic Party for slightly outraising Collins last fiscal quarter, with over 80% of her contributions of $100 or less. She has garnered endorsements from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (who call her the “Elizabeth Warren of civil liberties”) and environmentalists. But overall, Bellows has been outraised by around $3.3 million, a deep hole that even her unique strategy will be hard-pressed to erase.