NextGen America, a well-funded Democratic organizing group that spent tens of millions of dollars to turn out young voters in 2018, has settled on its next target: Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.
But there’s one problem for the youth-focused nonprofit: The median Mainer is nearly 45 years old, the highest average of any of the 50 states.
“Our central goal is to defeat Susan Collins. If we can do that, Democrats have a good chance of taking back the Senate,” said Ben Wessel, the group’s youth vote director. “We go to where the battle is. And that battle is in Maine.”
NextGen’s decision to invest at least $1 million into the state to organize young voters is a sign of how Democrats increasingly view a victory over Collins, whose reputation as a moderate has powered her to multiple statewide victories by large margins, as essential to their chances of taking back the Senate in 2020 and providing a potential Democratic president with a chance to enact their agenda.
Republicans have a 53-47 majority in Congress’ upper chamber, and Maine is one of the four GOP-held seats Democrats are seen as most likely to win in 2020, along with Colorado, Arizona and North Carolina. Republicans are aiming to win Democratic-held seats in Alabama, Michigan and New Hampshire.
NextGen’s cash will go toward registering and turning out young voters, including students at 11 colleges throughout the state. Younger voters not on college campuses will be targeted with digital advertising and mailers.
Six of the colleges are in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, which is Republican-leaning and heavily rural. Democratic Rep. Jared Golden narrowly won the district in 2018, and President Donald Trump was able to win it ― and capture a single additional electoral vote ― in 2016.
NextGen’s largest benefactor is Tom Steyer, a major Democratic donor who is now running for president. He poured more than $35 million into the group in 2018, when it operated in 10 states and turnout among young people spiked. The group can no longer communicate directly with Steyer, but he is expected to continue funding it.
NextGen, like many other parts of Steyer’s political operation, is focused on turning out Democratic base voters. The group has focused on young voters because millennial and generation Z Americans are more diverse and more liberal than previous generations. But Wessel acknowledged defeating Collins will require different tactics.
“We understand there’s a persuasion component to the work we need to do. Susan Collins has gotten plenty of Democratic votes before,” Wessel said. “She may, once upon a time, have been an independent person, but she’s now voting in lockstep with corrupting influences on Washington.”
There is some precedent for young voters making the difference even in a state with an aging electorate. In neighboring New Hampshire, high turnout in college towns was critical to Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan’s victory over Republican Kelly Ayotte in 2016. New Hampshire is the nation’s second-oldest-population state.
Youth turnout was crucial to Democratic success nationally in 2018. A Brookings Institution report found young adults ages 18 to 29 turned out at a 36% rate in 2018, up from 20% in the 2014 midterms. A similar increase from 2016 to 2020 ― youth turnout is typically higher for presidential elections ― would provide a major boon to Democratic efforts to defeat Trump and take control of the Senate.
There isn’t an official Democratic nominee to challenge Collins yet, though the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has endorsed Maine state House Speaker Sara Gideon, and national progressive groups have backed Betsy Sweet, who finished third in the state’s 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Collins raised $2 million in the second quarter of 2018 and now has $5.4 million on hand, according to Federal Election Commission records. Gideon raised $1 million during her first week in the race, while Sweet took in about $80,000 during her first two weeks in the contest.
The Democratic nominee to challenge Collins also has more than $3 million worth of crowdfunded donations waiting.