BRUNSWICK, Maine — Voters like Renee Givner of Falmouth, Maine, are the kind of independents who historically have handed Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) a resounding victory, term after term.
“I really think Susan Collins did a good job at one time, and I trusted her at one time,” Givner told me. This year, though, Givner “had to become a Democrat,” and will vote for Collins’s Democratic opponent, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, in one of this year’s most competitive and expensive Senate campaigns.
“This is the most important election in my life — this is it,” Givner said after a recent Gideon campaign event. “If the Senate continues to be run by Mitch McConnell, we are in worse trouble than anyone expects.”
In past years, Collins cruised to reelection with a voter coalition made up of Republicans, independents, and Democrats who liked her willingness to buck her party. But in 2020, her future in the Senate looks much more uncertain.
Susan Collins is the lone New England Republican senator left in a party dominated by President Donald Trump — and the once-powerful, bipartisan “mod squad” of the US Senate is a shell of its former self.
“Even before I left, they were down to four or five of them,” said Jane Calderwood, who served as chief of staff for Collins’s former longtime colleague Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME). “They used to joke they could hold their weekly lunch in a phone booth.”
The middle Collins occupies has shrunk dramatically over the years, from approximately 27 senators in 2005 to just six in 2013, per analysis by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver. Just three Republican senators with a track record of voting against their own party remain: Collins, and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Mitt Romney (R-UT). Given Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent death and the looming fight over confirming her replacement, the stakes for this unpredictable group of senators have never been higher.
Collins is caught between Trump voters who think she should embrace the president more fully, and those who think she hasn’t done enough to stand up to him. She needs both to win. Polls show a tight race, with Gideon ahead slightly. While a recent Quinnipiac University poll found Gideon with a 12-percentage-point lead, operatives in both parties say the gap is in the single digits — closer to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll showing Gideon ahead by 5 percentage points.
“We are confident that when Mainers look at their options in this race, they will choose to re-elect a Senator who is an experienced, proven, effective leader; knows every corner of the state; and was raised with Maine values,” Collins campaign spokesperson Annie Clark told Vox in a statement.
Trump looms large over the races of vulnerable GOP senators across the country. Though many have embraced the president, Collins has stayed silent on the subject of her support for Trump’s own reelection bid; she has repeatedly declined to comment on whether she’s voting for him.
“What I can tell you is that she is just so surprised that so many people who have supported her for so many years are not supporting her today; she can’t figure it out,” said Portland, Maine, real estate developer Joe Boulos, a longtime Collins supporter and friend. “I think she’s not running against Sara Gideon, she’s running against the contempt and dislike of Trump and her [Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh vote.”
With another Supreme Court confirmation battle brewing, it’s too early to tell whether Collins’s stance on Ginsburg’s seat moves the needle closer to her or to Gideon. But Maine voters are well aware their state could shift the balance of power in the US Senate.
Collins’s brand is being complicated by Trump
Sitting outside the Penobscot Snowmobile Club in Hermon, Maine, Collins looked up as a military plane flew overhead.
“The sound of freedom,” Collins said through her red-, white-, and blue-striped mask. Moments before, she posed for photos with members of four regional snowmobile clubs next to a massive orange snowmobile trail groomer — the result of federal USDA grant money Collins helped secure to help the clubs boost regional tourism in Maine’s largely rural Second Congressional District.
Though Collins was speaking at the club in her official Senate capacity, events like these demonstrate the longtime senator’s primary reelection pitch. Collins frequently points out that should Republicans hold the majority, she’s next in line to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. She’s also made the Paycheck Protection Program, and the small-business loans it generated following passage of the CARES Act, a large part of her argument for why she should get another term.
“This has been extraordinarily successful. It’s been used by three-quarters of Maine’s small businesses, and it’s been used to sustain 256,000 jobs in our state,” Collins told Vox in an interview. “Regrettably, there are still businesses like restaurants that are still struggling. ... If they could get a second PPP loan, it would help ensure they stay afloat and that their employees still have jobs.”
Collins is betting that a pragmatic brand in her home state and the millions she’s brought back to Maine is strong enough for her to win reelection, and she’s been in office a lot longer than many of her Republican colleagues who also face tough races this year.
“For the past seven consecutive years, Sen. Collins has been named as the most bipartisan member of Congress,” said Clark, her campaign spokesperson, who noted that Collins has taken heat over her votes from both Democrats and Republicans in recent years. “In every vote, Sen. Collins always does what she thinks is right for the people of Maine and America.”
But if Collins is so pragmatic, why does she still identify as a member of the Republican Party? A Colby College student posed this question to Collins in April 2015, a couple of months before Trump’s presidential candidacy was even a blip on the radar.
“I am a Republican because I believe in core Republican values,” Collins responded then. “I believe in personal responsibility, I believe in individual liberty, in smaller government ... I see myself as being in the tradition of the Republican Party that has always been in the Northeast. It goes to Margaret Chase Smith, to Bill Cohen, Olympia Snowe, the more centrist part of the Republican Party.”
That brand of centrism comes at a high cost with Trump leading the GOP. Whether Collins likes it or not, part of her legacy — and her electoral fate — are now 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.”
As much as some voters want Collins to denounce Trump, she needs his supporters to vote for her. Trump’s name didn’t come up once at the snowmobile club event in Hermon, but his presence couldn’t be missed in the surrounding area. Eleven Trump signs dotted the road leading to the club, and one attendee told me there are many more around the Second Congressional District, which Trump won by over 10 percentage points in 2016 — even after former President Barack Obama won it by nearly 9 percentage points in 2012.
“I’ve seen one Biden sign and a ton of Trump advertising,” said Norman Young, a Trump and Collins supporter who lives in Byron, Maine, and called the state’s tight Senate race “very, very important to the whole country.”
More Blue Lives Matter flags than American flags can be seen flying in some of Maine’s tiny rural communities. In one town, a large Trump flag hung suspended from a water tower. One resident had defiantly installed a Joe Biden campaign sign reading “ByeDon” in their front yard, across the street from a neighbor whose lawn was covered in Trump signs.
This part of the state is a far cry from the liberal southern Maine enclave of Portland. Young called it “the two-Maine syndrome, where Portland is dictating our way of life.” Still, the district has swung Democratic, as it did for Obama in 2012 before lurching dramatically to Trump in 2016. Democratic Rep. Jared Golden was narrowly elected in 2018 and is expected to win again this year.
The Second Congressional District is in Collins’s blood. Hermon may be rural, but it’s still 180 miles south of the senator’s hometown of Caribou, a northern Maine outpost near the Canadian border. Republican politics are “in my DNA,” Collins told the Colby students in 2015. Four generations of her father’s family served in the Maine legislature, she said, quipping, “One was a Democrat, but we try not to let that be known.”
Collins has been in the Republican Party a lot longer than Trump. But even as Trump has fundamentally altered the GOP, she hasn’t abandoned it yet.
“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.”
Sara Gideon is giving Collins the fight of her life
Current Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon is Collins’s most serious challenge in decades. Before running for Senate, Gideon garnered recognition in the state for helping to pass climate legislation aiming to achieve 100 percent renewable energy in Maine by 2050, and for gathering enough votes to override conservative Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill allowing access to the opioid overdose-reversing drug Naloxone without a prescription.
Even though she was a known entity in Maine political circles, Gideon freely admits she was not a household name when she decided to run. When asked why the race against one of Maine’s most powerful figures is so competitive, Gideon said she recognizes that it’s happening within the context of national politics.
“Certainly the context of President Trump and the damage he has done, both proactively and also with the lack of leadership, is really important as voters think about who they want not only leading the country but also who they want representing us in the Senate,” Gideon told Vox in an interview. “Sen. Collins has made the choice not to stand up to this president, not to stand up for what Mainers think is right, and that is absolutely relevant to where we are right now.”
Even before Gideon announced her campaign, a $3 million pot of money — crowdfunded by progressive Democratic groups after Collins’s controversial vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — was waiting for whoever ended up taking on the incumbent. That amount has since grown to over $4 million; that and other spending from Democratic groups has resulted in what Collins’ campaign spokesperson Clark calls “false and misleading ads that attack Sen. Collins’ record and impugn her reputation.” Republicans are also trying to define Gideon negatively in voters’ minds, and millions more have poured into the state from outside groups of both parties, leading to a deluge of negative TV advertising.
“Gideon’s a thoughtful, smart alternative,” said Colby College government professor Dan Shea. “But there’s no doubt that’s she’s benefitted from a massive influx of money. She was not known throughout the state.”
There are now 91,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state, per data from the Maine secretary of state’s office, and it’s young voters especially who are driving that trend, Shea said. Maine also has one of the oldest populations in the nation, and a recent poll found voters over 50 supporting Biden over Trump by double digits.
“This election is such a closer year, and such an important year for Democratic candidates,” Bowdoin College student and Gideon supporter Ellery Harkness told Vox, adding that she plans to vote in the Maine Senate election. “There seems to be this momentum.”
As much as Collins is running on bringing back federal dollars to everything from Maine’s shipyards to the Penobscot Snowmobile Club, Gideon is running on a much more national message: As long as Susan Collins remains in office, Mitch McConnell will remain in power.
“As long as Mitch McConnell is the majority leader in the Senate, it doesn’t matter if Susan Collins is hopeful or concerned or disappointed,” Gideon told a socially distanced crowd of about 45 people at a recent campaign event. “Because if he doesn’t want it to happen, it will literally never see the light of day. And as long as Sen. Collins is our senator from Maine, Mitch McConnell will be that majority leader, and we will continue to not see progress.”
Bipartisan cooperation is failing in the US Senate
Political polarization on Capitol Hill has been evident for years, and the situation is getting worse. Calderwood, the former chief of staff to Olympia Snowe, told Vox she encountered a number of Republican leaders in the Senate, including those who were open to bipartisan compromise (Bob Dole and, to some extent, Trent Lott) to those who weren’t (Bill Frist and McConnell).
“McConnell is, in my experience, a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of guy,” Calderwood said. “You just should line up and go along, and he doesn’t like it when you don’t. He’s very good at getting a group of his followers to gang up on whoever’s [going] alone. That was his favorite approach.”
Collins has been on the receiving end of her party’s wrath, like when she was one of a small group of Republicans who cast the decisive votes against the GOP’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. So far, Collins and Murkowski are the only Republican senators who have said they don’t support confirming a new justice to the Supreme Court before the November election, which is a little over a month away.
“In fairness to the American people, who will either be re-electing the President or selecting a new one, the decision on a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court should be made by the president who is elected on November 3rd,” Collins said in a statement Saturday. Still, she hasn’t said what she would do if a vote for Ginsburg’s replacement came to the floor before Election Day.
In the old days, a senator who bucked their party might get a stern talking-to from the Senate majority leader or an angry phone call from the president. These days, it all happens on Twitter, with legions of angry Trump supporters eager to help castigate the rebels.
But Collins has sided more with her own party in the Trump era. Even as she voted against ACA repeal in 2017, Collins voted more in line with the Republican position that year than at any other point in her career, according to a CNN analysis.
And after nearly four years of Trump openly flouting both norms and laws, there are times where voters have wanted Collins to be like more like Margaret Chase Smith, the legendary Maine Republican senator who stood up to Sen. Joe McCarthy in the middle of America’s red scare — and whom Collins considers a role model.
“Margaret Chase Smith ... I don’t think she would have put up with Trump at all,” said Calderwood. “Hand-wringing isn’t helpful. I know [Collins has] got it in her, because I’ve seen her. She’s very strong and tough and independent when she wishes to be, and she’s very smart.