She has new Maine-made New Balance sneakers and a Maine-made L.L. Bean raincoat, and she will be led along the way by a pickup truck with a camper shell on the back that includes a restroom, food, and sleeping quarters.
Shenna Bellows, 39, the Democratic underdog challenging Republican Susan Collins for her Senate seat, does not much resemble former Florida Sen. Lawton Chiles, famously nicknamed “Walkin’ Lawton” for his memorable 91-day, 1,003-mile walk across Florida in 1970 during his first run for the Senate.
But in Houlton on Sunday, Bellows begins her own three-and-a-half-week walk down the full 350-mile length of Maine.
“I’m gearing up,” said Bellows, who says she and her husband occasionally hike recreationally.
The point here is not to see the backwoods, though. Along with walking, she will be meeting and greeting potential voters and attending all sorts of events in some 63 communities.
“This sort of walk may not work in 2014 in some states like New York or Florida. But Maine is one large small town,” she said. “I’ll be hosting events on a daily basis, engaging in house parties and breakfasts, and tours of local downtowns and communities left out by Washington politics.”
By July 29, for example, Bellows is expected to be in Bangor, where a press conference is set at the Paul Bunyan statue. On Aug. 3 she is to be at the Muskie Lobster Festival in Freeport, featuring an appearance by Democratic consultant James Carville. She is supposed to finish her trek on Aug. 12 with a closing press conference in Kittery, followed by a rally in Portland.
The Collins reelection campaign did not return a call seeking comment.
A Hancock resident who is a former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Bellows has sought to portray herself as a voice for the working class in her race against a popular three-term incumbent. She says her planned walk is just one other way she hopes to combat big money “drowning out the voice of everyday people.”
But even her campaign’s internal polling shows that Bellows trails Collins by more than 30 percentage points. Still, Bellows says her spirits are high and sees her upcoming trek as a key moment — or month — for her campaign.
Bellows herself raises the name of “Walkin’ Lawton” as a trailblazer for this sort of thing, but she explains that she’s also restoring a Maine tradition. For instance, she mentions William Cohen, who walked through the state’s 2nd Congressional District on his way to winning the seat in 1972.
After that, the practice of walking the state soon became a habit not just for Cohen as he moved on after three terms to the U.S. Senate, but other Republican candidates in Maine, including recently retired Sen. Olympia Snowe. But in the last 20 years or so, says Bellows, these sorts of walks have been dying out.
In preparation, Bellows staffers have already driven the entire route to determine where to reroute for safety reasons, construction, or whatever other obstacles that might be found along the course of the trip.
The plan is for staffers to drive somewhat ahead of her in a pickup truck, and they are packing a tent in case one is needed.
But most nights, Bellows will be staying with supporters or at bed-and-breakfasts. She will be camping the night of July 24 in Mattawamkeag Park.
Bellows said early weather predictions for the opening days of the trek look good, and that she’s optimistic this retail politicking will give her campaign, well, a leg up.
Bellows is also eager to start hiking for another reason. She jokes that with all the barbeques, chicken dinners, ice-cream socials, and other campaign events so far, “I have taken on a few pounds.”