This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
At a time of historic partisan polarization, Susan Collins won a bit over 51 percent of the vote as Joe Biden bested Trump statewide in Maine 53 to 44 percent.
With this, Collins won her fifth term in office, albeit with far lower than the nearly 69 percent she captured in 2014.
In the Trump years, Collins had seen her approval ratings drop below 50 percent. If her vote share had come in a point or two under 50 percent, she would have faced a ranked choice runoff in which she probably wouldn’t have gotten most second rankings and therefore would have lost. Her chief opponent, Sara Gideon, had plenty of resources and lots of volunteer energy.
So what happened?
The simplest explanation is that Collins ran a back to the basics campaign, wielding her incumbency advantages while defining the much less well-known Gideon negatively. In this, she was helped by the state’s geographic tendencies and her political skills.
Gideon emphasized national issues, Collins’ closeness to Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), health policy, climate change policy and her efforts toward bipartisanship as Speaker. Some ads featured voters who backed Collins before who were now supporting Gideon and early ads were biographical.
Collins made her record of bringing home the bacon central to her reelection campaign and frequently reiterated her message that she works hard for Maine. This was a continuation of the highly aggressive press operation from her Senate staff which issueed a stream of press releases when local grants were made in Maine. Collins and her allies portrayed her as “in line” to be the chair or ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Chair, although it was never clear how far she was from the front of the line. The message, though, was that Collins delivered and would be in a better position than a freshman senator to do so.
But there was another sort of incumbency advantage. In a small state like Maine, relationships matter a lot and it’s not at all unusual for voters to have met their senators. Collins built up relationships over many years and she was a safe harbor for undecided voters.
Moreover, Sara Gideon was just not that well known before the campaign, making it easier to define her negatively. In part, that’s because Maine has legislative term limits so no one serves in the legislative leadership very long.
One line of attack against Gideon was that she hadn’t done anything to deal with the pandemic while Collins delivered for Maine. There had in fact been a legislative package passed before the Maine Legislature went home. Then when Gideon and other legislative leaders tried to bring the Maine Legislature back into session, Republican legislators refused.
And when Collins went after Gideon on this and on taxes, her husband’s law firm receiving a PPP loan while Gideon criticized the program, her husband’s troubled real estate venture that didn’t pay local taxes for a time, Gideon’s handling of a rumor about a Democratic state legislator’s interactions with underage girls, and various policies, Gideon didn’t have a reservoir of public knowledge and goodwill to withstand the attacks.
Gideon had another hurdle. It is a commonplace observation in Maine that candidates from the more northern, rural second congressional district typically have an easier time winning than those from the first district. Democrat Sara Gideon, unlike Collins, not only lives in the first district but grew up in Rhode Island. This may not seem all that far away from Maine — after all, both are in New England — but it can and probably did matter.
Something else that made Gideon seem “other” was her parentage, which included a father who immigrated from India. The Collins campaign certainly never raised this. But the issue showed up in social media posts with comments about Gideon’s skin color.
The Collins campaign used ads that pointed out the senator’s northern, native Maine roots and portrayed Gideon as a wealthy outsider. As the Portland Press Herald noted, “Of the 36 municipalities that gave Gideon a double-digit margin of victory, 30 were in the 1st District, and all of the rest were coastal towns in Waldo and Hancock counties, plus Orono.” Collins did especially well in rural areas, areas which one pollster acknowledged may not have been well captured in their data.
Collins had some critical high profile endorsers. One was Republican Bill Cohen, who Collins worked for when Cohen represented ME-2, before Cohen was a senator and then Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton. Cohen, who challenged Presidents Nixon and Reagan, visits Maine fairly frequently and has tended to endorse Democratic presidential candidates in recent years, touted Collins’ credentials and held that her integrity had been unfairly impugned.
Another endorser, not known outside of the state, was featured prominently in Collins’ ads in the last month of the campaign. That was Bill Green, a retired television personality who was featured in a decidedly upbeat, nonpolitical outdoors-focused segment called “Bill Green’s Maine.” (Green, who has a mustache, is so well known that Sen. Angus King sometimes says people mix up the two of them.) His first ad defended Collins against attacks while his final one said of Gideon backers, “For them, this isn’t even about Maine. But for us, it is.” As Maine columnist Bill Nemitz put it, “The late ad played directly, and effectively, into the Collins campaign’s insinuation that Gideon, who moved here years ago from Rhode Island, is ‘from away’ and therefore can’t be trusted.”
Collins also managed to finesse national issues, including her position on Trump. She persistently refused to say who she backed for president and, while that hurt her with some, people could read into her remarks to evaluate their own positions. I heard conservatives say Collins was probably voting for Trump and others say they thought she wouldn’t. In talking about national politics, toward the end of the campaign, Collins said she would make her own decisions and thought the U.S. shouldn’t have “one party rule.”
At the same time, Collins maintained support from the right. She had no primary challenge. And, during the campaign, the Maine Republican Party pushed out messaging defining Gideon as a radical and a socialist and they printed and distributed lawn signs using Gideon’s color scheme saying “Vote Sara Gideon/DEFUND THE POLICE!” (These followed lawn signs distributed by the Maine Democratic party in southern Maine with Trump and Collins on the same sign.
Also, Gideon did not support defunding the police.) Collins was endorsed by the far right Maine Christian Civic League in a video in which a leader touted their relationship and told listeners that a vote for Collins would help Republicans keep the Senate.
But Collins of course needed more than the right to hold her seat.
Mainers have a long pattern of ticket splitting and this continued in 2020. Voters in the second congressional district backed Democrat Jared Golden and President Donald Trump this year.
Collins had benefited from this tendency to split tickets in 2008, when 58 percent of Mainers backed Barack Obama and gave her 61 percent of the vote. She did again in 2020, although this time Collins ran behind the statewide winner and her tally was much reduced. But, while missed by pollsters, it was clearly enough for her to retain the seat in the face of her toughest reelection challenge.
Amy Fried is the chair of University of Maine’s political science department and she oversees the school’s Maine Policy Scholar Program.