After weeks of trying to get in touch with Susan Collins and sending email after email, all Bre Kidman got back was a form letter.
Collins was one of 97 U.S. Senators to vote in favor the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), one of a pair of Congressional bills, collectively known as FOSTA/SESTA, which intended to halt commercial sexual exploitation but ended up targeting sex workers. The legislation forced the shutdown of websites like Backpage.com and Craigslist's Personals section, which historically allowed sex workers to screen potential clients. The loss of those resources particularly endangers trans sex workers of color, who already face high rates of violence.
That legislation was signed into law in April 2018, even after Kidman repeatedly tried to get in touch with staffers in Collins’ office to send over policy on sex work the 31-year-old had authored as a fellow for the National Center for Trans Equality. Kidman, who is nonbinary, currently works as a criminal defense attorney in Portland, Maine, the state Collins represents.
When Collins voted to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court even after three women accused him of sexual assault, that was the breaking point. The issue is personal for Kidman, who was briefly abducted and then raped at the age of 15 while spending a semester abroad in Finland. In fact, it was so personal that they were willing to fly down to Washington, D.C., to meet with a representative from Collins’ office one-on-one before the Senator weighed in.
Kidman finally got a response this time, but it wasn’t the one they wanted. “She’s got a lot to think about,” the staffer said of Collins’ decision.
Kavanaugh was soon confirmed 50-48, with Collins acting as one of two deciding swing votes. According to Kidman, they got “sad at first and then got mad” and then decided to do something about it. Kidman said to themselves, If this is what our representation looks like, that’s not good enough. I think I could do a better job than this.
In April, Kidman put that prediction to the test by declaring their candidacy for the U.S. Senate. They were the first challenger to enter a Democratic primary that now includes Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, lobbyist and one-time gubernatorial candidate Betsy Sweet, and retired Air Force general Jonathan Tracey. Susan Rice, the former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, has said she will not run following speculation she would take on Collins.
Although Kidman hoped to quietly file with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) after crossing the $5,000 donation threshold, the campaign immediately attracted national attention. Right-wing news sites like Fox News, Daily Wire, and Town Hall took particular interest in Kidman’s tongue-in-cheek self-description as a “queer feminist mermaid.”
“It was hilarious because like they were framing it like it was an insult,” Kidman says. “It was off and running from there. I don't think I’ve really paused to take a breath since the end of April.”
Kidman formally kicked off their campaign at Portland Pride in June with a float in the parade (pictured above) and an aquatic-themed fundraiser which clapped back at their conservative trolls. The donation drive was called “Be the Change You Want to Sea,” and anyone who gave $5 to the campaign could smash a pie in Kidman’s face. While the upstart politician recognizes that it’s a “ridiculously undignified way to raise money,” they maintain it’s “still more dignified than selling your vote to a corporation.”
In the weeks since, Kidman has continued to raise their profile in unconventional ways. A local burlesque artist in the Portland area, they performed “America the Beautiful” while dressed in the stars and stripes. Two men attired in red and blue shirts with matching neckties came and tore off the flag, and Kidman finished the number wearing only a flesh-colored bikini.
But if American politics has never seen someone like Kidman before, they claim that’s the point. If elected to the Senate in November 2020, Kidman would be the first transgender or nonbinary person seated in Congress and the first federal lawmaker to use gender-neutral pronouns. When they initially attempted to register their campaign with the SEC, they couldn’t because there was no “Mx.” option on the website’s dropdown menu. It had to be added.
Such a trailblazing campaign demands a unique approach, but Kidman also doesn’t have a choice. Collins is a moneyed incumbent who has held office for 22 years, while Kidman has just $7,000 in their war chest. They say the campaign is run by a “bunch of broke queers” who donate whatever spare time they have.
“We’re a bunch of overworked, overextended queer people who care a lot about what's happened to our representation,” Kidman says. “We’re not career lobbyists with a network of statewide connections. We have to get creative. If we want to get people thinking, we have to be a little smarter and really engage with people in a way that they’re going to remember when they go home.”
Instead of spending money on attack ads and mailers, Kidman plans to continue engaging with voters by tackle important issues in whimsical ways. One idea the candidate threw out was having to having a pig roast fundraiser to raise money for a local food bank. The theme? “Eating the rich,” Kidman explains.
But aside from the glitter and glitz, Kidman hopes to show they are a candidate with real ideas about how to reform a political system that they believe continually rewards “same type of prepackaged, sanitized, electable person” who is more concerned with getting reelected than serving the people. Rather than offering meaningful policy solutions to address America’s most pressing problems, Kidman believes the question of the day too often is: “If I pass this, will they vote for me next time?”
What Kidman is offering instead is what they call a “convenient revolution.” While Kidman hopes to push for $15 minimum wage, universal health care, criminal justice reform, and zero carbon emissions, their message is focused on inspiring constituents to really think about what they want in an elected representative and turning out to vote for candidates who exemplify those qualities.
“There is no more convenient revolution than making yourself heard,” Kidman says. “Because if we can't get a foot in the door now, the revolution to come is a lot scarier. I don’t think it gets easier.”
Kidman will have almost an entire year to inspire a queer insurgency in Maine before Democrats cast their primary ballots in June 2020. Collins will also face her own primary challenge from Derek Levasseur, a blogger who owns his own construction company. Both Kidman and Levasseur’s candidacies have been viewed as longshots, but Collins is certainly vulnerable to an upset: According to Morning Consult, she has the second highest disapproval rating among U.S. Senators, behind only Sen. Mitch McConnell.
While Kidman is the first to admit that they have no idea whether a genderfluid burlesque performer stands a shot against decades of entrenched Beltway politics, it’s worth a shot.
“What we’re trying to do is admittedly way outside the realm of what a traditional campaign is and has been,” they add. “We don’t know how effective that’s going to be. I don't think I’ve seen anybody try it, but all of us believe in it enough to give some time to it. It feels pretty special.”