Is government surveillance an issue to win on in the midterm elections?
At least one upstart Democratic challenger in Maine vying for Republican Susan Collins's Senate seat thinks so — and she's got the early fundraising clout to suggest she might be onto something.
Shenna Bellows outraised Collins in the last quarter of 2013, raking in $331,454, compared with the $314,921 raised by Collins during the same period, according to filings made with the Federal Election Commission. The margin is slight, but it's noteworthy in part for Bellows's vocal stance against the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, which she derides as unconstitutional.
Fans of Collins's unique brand of moderate conservatism should hold off on panicking just yet, though. The 17-year incumbent has more than $3 million in cash on hand and has easily won reelection each cycle since first earing her seat it in 1996. The race didn't crack National Journal Hotline's rankings of the 15 most likely Senate seats to flip in 2014, and few expect Maine to suddenly become a top battleground state.
But if Bellows keeps hauling in impressive donations — more than 80 percent of her contributions amounted to $100 or less — her candidacy could, at a minimum, pull the centrist Collins further left during the campaign season, and demonstrate that government surveillance is an issue that resonates with voters.
"That's how I win," Bellows said. "I win by building an unusual coalition of progressives, libertarians, and independents who are energized by my position to restore constitutional freedoms and economic fairness."
Collins, who joined the Senate Intelligence Committee last year, has previously defended the NSA's surveillance programs for having "thwarted dozens and dozens of terror plots both here and overseas." But she has admitted that the spying revelations and other issues have led to a "loss of faith in government" that is "in some ways, deserved."
Bellows, meanwhile, is nothing short of a progressive's dream candidate, and not just because of her NSA views. Her platform also includes marijuana legalization, stronger environmental protections, Wall Street reform, and a firm plank in favor of abortion rights. She served as the executive director of Maine's American Civil Liberties Union for the past eight years, a tenure that found her championing liberal causes such as same-sex marriage and same-day registration. She also worked in D.C. for the ACLU, a job where she said she was "hired specifically to work on raising awareness against the Patriot Act," the post-9/11 bill that granted the government much of its present-day surveillance authority.
"I oppose the controversial spying program, and I would repeal the Patriot Act," Bellows said. She added that the Freedom Act, a bill being pushed by Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner that would limit the NSA's surveillance authority, is "absolutely a step in the right direction to restore checks and balances."
Bellows would undoubtedly have a lot in common with Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, both Democrats who have aggressively pursued NSA reform measures on grounds that the agency's surveillance apparatus poses a serious threat to Americans' privacy and civil liberties.
Her politics have led the Progressive Change Campaign Committee to dub her the "Elizabeth Warren of civil liberties," a moniker she finds flattering. The group endorsed Bellows Wednesday and blasted out a fundraising notice to its network asking for contributions of $3.