On the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 27, a group of students from the Tufts chapter of the activist embroidery organization Stitch it to the Patriarchy gathered on President’s Lawn to call voters. That same day, at the same time, members of Tufts Democrats attended a virtual phone-banking event to support the same campaign. But the candidate these groups were supporting was not Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, nor a local Massachusetts politician. These groups had both gathered to support Sara Gideon, the Democratic nominee in Maine’s upcoming Senate election.
Both groups see the campaign as critical in the effort to flip the Senate toward Democrats. Gideon, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, is running against incumbent Republican Susan Collins, who has held the seat since 1997. Collins is New England’s sole Republican member of Congress, making her seat a target for the region’s Democrats.
“New England feels like, for most Democrats, it’s kind of like a no-brainer, ‘Oh, we’re liberal, those states are fine,’” Sofia Zamboli, a senior, and the vice president of Tufts Democrats, said. “But Maine has a Republican senator … so this race is something that we know we can achieve if we set our minds to [it].”
Collins aims to maintain her reputation as a moderate Republican in the Democratic-leaning state, and is not endorsing the president’s reelection campaign. But Mark Lannigan, the Secretary of Tufts Democrats, doesn’t see very much distance between her and the president.
“Susan Collins has been kind of a background supporter of Trump much more than she’s let on,” Lannigan, a sophomore, said. “With Sara Gideon’s campaign, they’re trying to bring that to light.”
A source of tension between Collins and her opponents has been her support for Donald Trump’s previous Supreme Court nominees. This came up at the Stitch it to the Patriarchy event as one of the reasons participants opposed Collins.
“Susan Collins was very impactful in the decision of Brett Kavanaugh being elected to the Supreme Court,” sophomore Ansel Link said. Kavanaugh was confirmed by a close margin, following contentious hearings that included testimony from Christine Blasey Ford that he had allegedly sexually assaulted her.
The salience of Collins’ views on the Supreme Court has grown since the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September. Now, the prospect of an even more conservative court looms in the minds of Democratic voters, which has motivated some to get off the sidelines and get involved in political action.
“A lot of people have been mobilized by RBG’s death,” Elizabeth Strileckis, a sophomore and the leader of the Tufts chapter of Stitch it to the Patriarchy, said. “Before it was like, ‘Oh, we need the Senate, obviously, for bills and stuff, but also for when RBG passes away inevitably.’ So now that it’s actually happening, it’s just adding more to the importance of different Senate races.”
Rhys Murphy, the president of Tufts Democrats, described a similar experience in his club.
“After Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away, there was definitely a feeling in the club that our work certainly felt a lot more important. The consequences of politics and political decisions felt a lot more real,” Murphy, a senior, said.
Following Ginsburg’s death, Collins said she would prefer Ginsburg’s replacement be nominated by whoever wins the presidential election in November — but she has since said that she is willing to meet with President Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. Amid this mixed messaging, Gideon’s supporters are not optimistic about what Collins will do next.
“As of now she’s been saying that she’s going to oppose, but I honestly would not be surprised if she flips and endorses Trump’s nominee,” Strileckis said of Collins. “Collins can be wishy-washy.”
Both Stitch it to the Patriarchy and Tufts Democrats hope to use this concern that Tufts students have, toward President Trump, the Senate GOP and the prospect of a more conservative Supreme Court, and funnel it into direct action that contributes to political change.
Stitch it to the Patriarchy is a national brand with chapters at colleges around the country, whose website features clothes for sale with embroidered phrases like “Voting is Sexy.” But for now, the Tufts chapter is focusing on political activism and not embroidery, Strileckis said.
The group’s event on Sept. 27 began with participants attending a training session on Zoom, to make it accessible even for people who had never phone banked before.
“It’s my first time phone banking,” sophomore Lily Ahmed said at the event. “I’ve canvassed before, door to door, but obviously that’s not really a thing anymore just because of COVID.”
In an email, Strileckis wrote that the Tufts chapter plans to host more phone banking events for Democratic Senate candidates, including one for Jaime Harrison, running for Senate in South Carolina, and potentially more for Sara Gideon as well.
Tufts Democrats, too, plans to continue its fight for the Senate beyond the one event on Sept. 27. That event was part of College Nights for Gideon, a weekly series of events organized by the Gideon campaign, where students from various colleges get together on Zoom and call voters.
“They have groups of people from a whole range of schools all come together, and then they tally up how many calls each group gets, and it’s a little bit of a friendly competition,” Murphy said of the College Nights events.
Tufts Democrats plans to continue attending College Nights events every week until the election, Lannigan said. At the event on Sunday, Oct. 4, the Tufts team won, making the most calls in a field that included schools like Barnard College, Columbia University and Brown University.
Both Lannigan and Murphy said that the Senate race in Maine is the one that Tufts Democrats has spent the most time on this semester.
“Maine people would not like us to say this,” Murphy, a Massachusetts resident, said. “But it’s kind of our backyard. If it’s this important of a race, this close of a race in our own backyard, you can bet you’re gonna get a lot of people coming out for it.”
This sudden organizing did not spontaneously occur on its own, however. Tufts Democrats’ process of turning distress into action was facilitated by direct help from the Gideon campaign itself.
“The Gideon campaign … they were very active about reaching out to us, so they contacted us directly,” Murphy said.
This organized involvement with the Gideon campaign comes in a year when the top of the Democratic ticket is presidential nominee Joe Biden, who few Tufts students’ showed enthusiasm for during the primaries. Murphy noted that this has made it more difficult for the club to get students involved in the presidential race, which normally gets the most attention.
“It’s been somewhat difficult to get people interested and involved, as I think was not surprising to us, considering that Biden is the nominee, and our group on campus has always been significantly more to the left than the center of the Democratic party,” he said.
But others emphasized that focusing on the Senate was not an abandonment of the Biden campaign, and that Democratic Senate candidates are part of the same movement for change.
“There are a hundred issues that are on the ballot with this race,” Lannigan said of the Senate election in Maine. “And pretty much the entirety of Biden’s agenda is going to hinge on [Mitch] McConnell not being the majority leader in the Senate.”
Multiple Gideon supporters framed their activism as part of a broader movement, one to reject the vision of America that Donald Trump put forward when he was elected four years ago.
“A lot of people in 2016 felt helpless when the results of the election came out,” Zamboli said. “I feel like a lot of people might feel this way — that we want to know we did everything we could to make sure that what happened in 2016 doesn’t happen again.”
Murphy echoed this sentiment.
“The stakes now are higher than they’ve ever been, so really what it comes down to is whether or not we’re going to continue to have a democracy,” he said. “Or at least a functioning democracy.”