The moderator pressed her. Does she not care if her party wins the White House?
Collins, who is famously moderate, said she didn’t want to see one-party control of Washington because it would lead to “a far-left agenda” and a Democrat-led expansion of the Supreme Court following three conservative appointments.
Once more, the moderator tried, does Collins want to see a Republican in the White House?
“As I said,” the senator insisted, “I’m not getting involved in presidential politics.”
Collins’s Democratic challenger, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, had snapped to attention at the mention of Trump’s name. As Collins bobbed and weaved, Gideon stood at her lectern, staring up at the ceiling and taking deep breaths, as if straining not to interrupt. At one point, she seemed to suppress a smirk.
Welcome to Maine 2020, last stand of the moderate Republican.
Collins has spent most of her 24 years in the Senate enjoying safe harbor here from the political gales blowing up from the Mid-Atlantic. In 2008, when Barack Obama’s hope-and-change typhoon flattened John McCain by 17 points in Maine, Collins won her race by 23. But times change, career politicians less so, and the 2020 Trump Referendum has left New England’s last Republican member of Congress fighting for survival.
Heading into the final week of the campaign, The Washington Post’s polling average had Gideon — a member of the lower house of the Maine legislature who is (gasp!) originally from Rhode Island — up on Collins, a four-term incumbent who won her last race, in 2014, by 37 points, taking almost 70 percent of the vote with ample support from Democrats and independents.
That kind of strong popularity at home can make a senator feel secure in following her compass. In 2016, Collins wrote a scathing op-ed about how her party’s candidate, Donald Trump, didn’t uphold Republican values and was “unworthy” of the office. When Trump took control of the party and Republicans rallied around him, Collins became seen by Resistance types as one of the few Republican senators who might be willing to defy the president and her party on principle. Early on, she and fellow Republican Sens. John McCain and Lisa Murkowski joined the Democrats to block an attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
When inevitably she disappointed those same Resistance types, she was branded by anti-Trumpers as a squish, an enabler of a different kind. She voted to confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh despite a sexual assault allegation (“the presumption of innocence is relevant . . . when an accusation departs from a nominee’s otherwise exemplary record”), then to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial (“I believe that the president has learned from this case”). Maybe even more egregious to some critics was Collins’s vote for Trump’s 2017 tax bill, which eliminated the individual mandate and has made the ACA vulnerable to being declared unconstitutional in a case scheduled to go before the Supreme Court days after the election.
Maine independents, who outnumber Republicans, are reconsidering her, as are some moderate Democrats. Trump supporters see her as a problem, too — one of the politicians the president was talking about at a recent private fundraiser when he said, “There are a couple of senators I can’t really get involved with, I just can’t do it. You lose your soul if you do.”
Last month, after learning that Collins, who is pro-abortion rights and generally supportive of Obamacare, planned to be the sole Republican to buck her party and vote “no” on Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination because it was an election year, Trump tweeted that Collins was “not worth the work.” When the president made a campaign stop at a Maine orchard — less than 10 miles from Bangor, where Collins lives — a week and a half later, he did not mention Collins’s name.
And now here Collins was, at the final debate in a race where she had become an underdog, avoiding his name.
In political terms, her landslide victory in the 2014 midterm was a lifetime ago. Four years into a presidency that has shocked and enthralled all of America — Maine included — Collins’s answer on the Trump Question, “I’m not getting involved in presidential politics” is built to satisfy no one.
The same could be said of Collins. At a time when everyone has become involved in presidential politics, those who don’t pick a side might wind up representing nobody.
On the last Tuesday before Nov. 3, Collins, 67, hopped out of her campaign bus outside a trading post for hunting and fishing supplies in the southern town of Kittery, where she was greeted by around 40 people waving red-and-white signs reading, "Susan Collins: Our Senator." Wearing a mask with an American-flag design, she bumped elbows with firemen and chatted with retired veterans and regaled them with tales of the 28,000 small businesses helped by the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), of which she was a key architect, and the funding she secured for a nearby shipyard.
“I am so proud of the work the Portsmouth Naval Yard does for the Navy in overhauling our nuclear submarines,” she said. “I love that!”
Collins’s role as a breadwinner for Maine has been key to her remaining popular here. Over her career, she will proudly tell you, she has brought home $750 million in transportation funding for roads and bridges. If she wins reelection and the Republicans keep the Senate, she would be in line to lead the Senate Appropriations Committee in a couple years; that committee allocates federal money, and Collins could conceivably direct more of it to Maine. She boasts about having the second-longest consecutive voting record in the Senate, having not missed a vote since her 1997 swearing-in — she attributes that to valuing hard work, and she attributes that (conveniently enough) to being from Maine. And, she often points out, she’s a true Mainer; she was born in Caribou (current population: 7,593), in the rural, conservative north, and has never lived out of state.
“You should watch her at a parade,” says Cathy Goodwin, a Realtor and old friend of Collins. “People shout, ‘Hi, Susan! Hi, Susan!’ She knows many of them by name and can tell you, ‘I had dinner with them in 2005.’ ”
For all the reliable friendliness that greets a Collins reelection campaign, this year has been, in many ways, unfriendly. The Wesleyan Media Project has labeled the Maine Senate race the most negative race in the country, with 63 percent of the ads from both candidates being “pure attack only.” One Gideon ad misleadingly suggested that Collins made sure her campaign donors would benefit from the PPP while most of Maine small businesses went unsupported. (The Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave the claim Three Pinocchios.) Collins supporters, meanwhile, have gone to questionable lengths to tie Gideon to the “defund the police movement” by citing her ties to “defund the police groups” such as . . . Planned Parenthood, NARAL and the Sierra Club.
“I don’t think she’s changed,” said Chris Magnuson, a retired businessman wearing all red, Collins’s campaign color. “I think the atmosphere has gotten very toxic in the last six to 10 years and she’s become a victim of that.”
The scene outside the Kittery trading post was modest and wholesome, with a sheen of timelessness. As the senator concluded her remarks, however, Collins suggested that this year's race had been uniquely disturbing. "About every day, my husband watches all of these lying ads on television," she said. "He says to me, 'Why are you doing this?' And I always say, 'It's for Maine and for America!' "
While Collins spoke, a man walked by in a camouflage T-shirt.
“What about Brett Kavanaugh?” he shouted, and walked into the store.
Collins was considered a swing vote on Kavanaugh because she has serious feminist, pro-choice bona fides. Planned Parenthood (that “defund the police group”) has honored her. So when Christine Blasey Ford alleged that the future judge had pinned her to a bed with his body, groped her, tried to take off her clothes and covered her mouth when she tried to scream, some people thought she could be persuaded to vote against confirming him to the court.
A grass-roots group called Mainers for Accountable Leadership (another “defund the police group,” per that anti-Gideon ad) pushed for Collins to meet with sexual assault survivors from Maine. Three of them flew down to Washington and told the senator their stories. Collins told them that friends of hers had also told her their stories of sexual assault, according to Marie Follayttar, the group’s director.
The day before the vote, group members gathered and watched on TV as Collins gave a 44-minute speech on the Senate floor explaining why she’d vote for Kavanaugh. Her GOP colleagues applauded. The next day, she voted to confirm.
“We just held each other,” Follayttar says. “I heard screams. I heard cries. I heard swearing. I heard this collective outpouring of sadness, rage, heartbreak, disbelief.”
During the Kavanaugh hearings, in 2018, Be a Hero, a political action committee, announced it was starting a campaign. “Either Sen. Collins VOTES NO on Kavanaugh OR we fund her future opponent,” read the donation site, which crashed twice due to traffic surges and raised $1 million the day of the vote, according to Julia Barnes, the executive director.
When Sara “Future Opponent” Gideon won the Democratic primary in July 2020, the coffer was up to $4.1 million, most of which went to Gideon’s campaign. (Collins called the fund a “bribe.”)
Collins’s “stake has not been ideological right. It’s been to take care of Maine voters. It’s been to make sure that there are jobs at Bath Ironworks, a huge employer here,” says Andrew Rudalevige, a professor of government at Bowdoin College. But the Kavanaugh vote, he says, was the final turnoff in a series of votes that aggregated dissent against her.
“Absent the Trump factor,” Rudalevige says, “I don’t think Sara Gideon does any better than her predecessors in 2014 and 2008.”
Some voters who've turned away from Collins talk about the senator as if they've been betrayed in some way.
“I’m from a family of lifelong Republicans, and they say to me that they don’t trust her,” says Mary Callan, who works in education and, as an independent, has voted for Susan Collins in every election except this one. She used to see her standing for Maine values like working hard and keeping your word, “and that’s not what people are seeing anymore. They’re seeing her waffle and not really listen to her constituents, and just vote ridiculously.” (She had found Collins’s “yes” vote on the 2017 tax bill especially galling.)
Renee Givner, a retired chemical engineer from Falmouth, is an independent-turned-Democrat who used to vote for Collins. Givner says what bothers her most is how Collins seems to pretend that the past four years didn’t happen.
“She’s going on her old record,” Givner says. “She does the same thing that Trump does when he talks as if covid never happened. He skips it altogether. Well, Susan Collins skips Trump-in-power altogether.”
Sandy Maisel is a professor of government at Colby College. He’s also a registered Democrat who voted for Collins last election. Maisel says it wasn’t just the Kavanaugh vote that lost him. It was also the tax bill and her support for Trump’s Cabinet and judicial appointees. “It just seemed to me that she accepts things that the president does and says that are simply morally wrong,” he says.
This time, Maisel is voting for Gideon.
Gideon, 48, whose husband is from Maine, moved to the southern town of Freeport in 2004, raised her three children there, and started her political career in the town council. She’s run a shrewd campaign of hosting small-group “Suppers With Sara” to contrast with Collins, whom many complain hasn’t held a town hall in years. She’s also running as a pragmatic liberal. And there’s nothing more pragmatic for a liberal challenger than to try to harness anti-Trump rage.
Much of Gideon’s massive fundraising has come from out of state. Democrats have placed “Can Collins to Ditch Mitch” and “Trump/Collins” yard signs (right next to Sara Gideon signs) all over the more liberal southern half of the state to drive home the point.
The day of Trump’s Maine visit, Gideon seized the moment to join Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in a news conference, denouncing Trump and suggesting that Collins’s absence from the president’s campaign stop was an attempt to conceal her alliance with him. (In fact, Collins was in Washington because the Senate was in session.)
“Susan Collins may not want to be seen here today,” Gideon said, “but make no mistake, over the past four years she has chosen over and over again to stand with and stand up for Donald Trump and his priorities over Mainers.”
After the Kittery Trading Post, Collins's tour bus pulled into the parking lot of a Congdon's Doughnuts, a family-run shop in Wells, whose owner, Gary Leech, is a lifelong Republican, a giant Collins supporter and no fan of "the nitwit" in the Oval Office. He thanked Collins for the PPP loan that had kept his business afloat in the spring, and he handed her boxes upon boxes of doughnuts as well as a beer. Leech told the senator she should drink it "in a week or two when you can put your feet up and say, 'I'm done.' "
At her last stop on Tuesday, Collins gathered with reporters outside the Maine Diner in Wells and reflected on the race and how close it had gotten.
“Maine is not immune to polarization,” she said. It was now harder to please the majority in a state that is divided between the liberal south and conservative north. She lamented the “enormous amount of money that has been poured into the state” from national groups — that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which bills itself as “the only organization solely dedicated to electing a Democratic Senate,” announced a $4 million ad buy for the last week of the race. This in a state with a population of 1.3 million and a third-tier TV market. “That is unheard of,” Collins said. “That is more than I spent on television in my entire race six years ago.” (She did not address the possibility that any of her choices over the past four years could be a factor.)
The Maine Diner was tiny and packed with people. Mask-wearing seemed to be a vague suggestion.
“We wouldn’t be here today without PPP loans,” said Diane Couture, the manager who’s been there 31 years, as Collins came in. “We would have lost our homes. I wouldn’t have a job. March, April, May, I was spending nine hours a day just sitting and waiting.”
A line cook wearing a Trump 2020 face mask came out from the kitchen to tell Collins that she had his vote.
The senator made her rounds, popping by a booth of people who said they were all veterans and police officers and were excited to meet her.
Finally, she stopped at the counter to schmooze a couple who had been eagerly eavesdropping.
“Thank you and good luck,” said the woman, who was eating a club sandwich. “We’re really impressed with the job you do.”
Collins posed for photos, then gave a big wave goodbye as she headed out the door. She hadn’t asked, but the couple were visiting from Massachusetts.
“Thank you so much,” said the senator. “I need your vote!”