When Bowdoin announced that seniors would not be returning to campus this fall, Sophia Salzer ’21 decided to take the semester off, instead dedicating her time and energy to Maine Planned Parenthood’s campaign for Sara Gideon, the state’s Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. As the current Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, Gideon is looking to unseat Republican incumbent Susan Collins.
As the only student on her team, Salzer found herself with less campaign experience than many of her coworkers. Nevertheless, she has been able to use her network at Bowdoin to assist her work.
“I’ve been able to coordinate some events alongside the Bowdoin [Democrats], alongside [the] Sunrise [Movement]. [It has] been very helpful to have that network of students who are already eager to get involved and ready to take part in some volunteer work,” Salzer said in a phone interview with the Orient.
For Ella Chaffin ’21, who also decided to dedicate the semester to electoral politics, it’s been an uphill battle to mobilize Bowdoin voters, especially in comparison to those at other NESCAC schools.
“We don’t have the whole campus back, so other colleges have more of an advantage to get the student body motivated and behind candidates because there’s a lot more students on campus,” Chaffin said in a zoom interview with the Orient.
Undeterred, she has tried to encourage Bowdoin students to be politically active by walking first years over to the town hall to register to vote in Maine and by running campus phone banking sessions. Like Salzer, Chaffin is also working on the Gideon campaign with a focus on reproductive justice. She heard about the opportunity in an email sent to Bowdoin government majors and decided to apply directly to the Gideon campaign.
“I’m one of the leaders of the Reproductive Justice Coalition at Bowdoin––I’m very active and passionate about women’s rights and access to reproductive healthcare. So I was already behind Sara Gideon, wanting to support her [to] defeat Susan Collins. When I saw that opportunity, I was really compelled to get involved to help her campaign,” Chaffin said.
Wilder Short ’22 also applied to the Gideon campaign from his home state of California.
Short cited a growing frustration with Collins as a major catalyst for his involvement in Gideon’s campaign. He was immediately excited when Gideon announced her candidacy.
“I emailed the team right away … because I think Sara’s honestly a perfect Maine senator,” he said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “[She] wanted to actually connect with Mainers and hear what Mainers have to say.”
While he is campaigning from over 3000 miles away, Short noted that his love for Bowdoin has provided him a sense of familiarity with the race and connection to the Maine voters he speaks with on the phone.
“I miss Brunswick dearly. I love Maine; I consider it a second home. Contact rates are low, so when you do have a pick up it’s a fifty-fifty chance of them staying on the line,” he said. “Just knowing that there’s a semi-connection between me and the other person on the line is enough to try and get people to stay on the phone, which is nice.”
While he had to scale back his work since resuming classes at Bowdoin, he did not fully abandon the work that he started in April. Like Chaffin, Short manages to fit in organizing volunteers and phone banking sessions between his virtual classes.
The format of this semester has forced them to focus more on phone banking as opposed to door-to-door canvassing and other similar in-person methods of outreach.
“We’re not in person a lot at all, which is kind of difficult, because I think campaigns are usually about impacting people face to face, so having to be behind a screen for it all has been a different experience,” Chaffin said.
Despite this, Short has found that a phone-based outreach campaign has some benefits, as it has provided him an opportunity to connect with people elsewhere in the country during such tumultuous times. His calls are more conversational and personal than a mere exchange of voting plans. With elderly call recipients in particular, Short noticed that many of the phone conversations served as a check-in.
With Salzer’s work for Planned Parenthood, current events have critically impacted the campaign. She noted that the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the subsequent confirmation of her replacement, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, have fueled discussion around the senatorial race.
“[The death of Ginsburg] was a big event that mobilized a lot of folks. A lot of people, after that, were more willing to talk,” she said. “We could also use that as a talking point, like, ‘Look, this is a huge thing that’s happening right now. We’ve lost a progressive woman on the Supreme Court.’”
As a Government and Legal Studies major, Chaffin has taken her fair share of classes focused on the U.S. legislative process, including ones about campaigns and elections. Still, she found a different kind of value in the hands-on work she has gotten to do in the campaign.
“I think it’s such a different and awesome opportunity to be in the field working on actual Senate campaigns … there’s only so much you can learn from a textbook or in a lecture, but it’s such an amazing opportunity to be involved in getting out the vote and working on such an important Senate race that is going to be so close in the end,” Chaffin said.
Like the two other Gideon campaigners, Salzer remarked on how she has grown from her experience. For her, it has helped fend off a sense of despair.
“Taking action and feeling like I’m doing something really just makes me feel better,” Salzer said. “[I’m] telling myself that if I put in the work, and if I work as hard as I can, then whatever happens, I tried. ”
Salzer encouraged others to get involved in campaigns, to take action and to vote. The stakes, she said, are incredibly high, and the race incredibly close.
“This race between Sara Gideon and Susan Collins may come down to within 1000 votes. And this seat … it’s a very valuable seat and has the potential to flip the Senate,” she said. “So go out and vote. Definitely vote, and vote up and down the ballot. Local elections matter—vote like your rights depend on it. Even if your own rights don’t, the rights of someone you love probably do.”
Andrew Chang contributed to this report.