Longtime moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine proved her staying power — again.
Collins beat Democrat and Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon to win her fifth race for reelection, her toughest one in decades. Collins’s win demonstrated that there’s still room for moderate Republicans who broke with President Donald Trump, even though she’s one of the last left in the US Senate.
Gideon called Collins to concede on Wednesday afternoon, Collins announced at a press conference. With that announcement, Democrats’ already tight path to the Senate majority has shrunk further.
Collins’s center-right positioning used to be the source of her political power in Maine. In previous election years, Collins easily cruised to victory by 20- or 30-point margins, buoyed by a mix of Republicans, independents, and Democrats who liked her willingness to buck her party. This race was much closer, with Collins leading Gideon by about eight points. Still, her longtime brand and clout in Maine eventually won out.
Collins’ moderate position proved tougher to pull off in the hyperpolarized Trump era. Collins tried hard not to pick a side in the presidential race — she was the lone GOP senator running for reelection in 2020 to not endorse Trump outright, refusing to say whom she was voting for in the presidential election.
That brand of centrism came at a high cost with Trump leading the GOP. Whether Collins likes it or not, part of her legacy is tied to the president.
“It’s really hard to be a moderate Republican in a party that is so much defined by Trump,” said New America senior fellow Lee Drutman. “It’s really hard to create a political identity as a moderate because so much of voting is nationalized, it’s partisan, and it’s an extension of your feelings about the president.”
While Collins ran a largely local race focused on her Senate seniority and history of bringing appropriations money back to Maine, Gideon ran a strategy emphasizing the national political implications of the race. Democratic groups were especially galvanized to unseat Collins after her vote to confirm controversial US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Even before Gideon announced her campaign, a $3 million pot of money — crowdfunded by progressive Democratic groups before Collins’s controversial vote to confirm Kavanaugh — was waiting for whoever ended up taking on the incumbent. Collins later broke with her party on Trump’s most recent Supreme Court pick Amy Coney Barrett, becoming the only Republican senator to vote against Barrett’s confirmation.
Even as she faced a barrage of attack ads, Collins bet that a pragmatic brand in her home state and the millions she’s brought back to Maine was strong enough for her to win reelection. Collins had a stronger home-state brand than many of her other Republican colleagues who also faced tough races this year.
Collins has been in the Republican Party a lot longer than Donald Trump. But even as Trump fundamentally altered the GOP, she hasn’t abandoned it yet — and is still left standing in it.
“There’s a reason she’s the only Northeastern Republican left,” said University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer. “She doesn’t really fit into the Trump GOP. She was increasingly an ill fit for the Republican Party before Trump.”
Collins is still in the Republican Party, and she could help shape where it goes next.