Anti-NSA Crusader Outraises Susan Collins in Fourth Quarter of 2013

Does “the Elizabeth Warren of civil liberties” pose a serious threat to Maine’s moderate incumbent?

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill February 1, 2011 in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
Feb. 5, 2014, midnight

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.

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