How Susan Collins survived the Resistance?

How Susan Collins survived the Resistance?
Susan Collins was as good as gone. The Maine Republican seeking a fifth Senate term in what is still mostly a blue state appeared likely to be a casualty of President Trump. Democrats had her in their sights and believed they could finally discredit her reputation as a centrist in order to get nearly every Joe Biden voter in the state to cast a ballot against her. 

Collins as a Trumper was a hard sell. But she had voted for the president’s acquittal in the Senate trial following his impeachment. She voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, which was both controversial at the time — the Kavanaugh hearings hinged on the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who alleged sexual assault — and threatened to undercut her record of support for Roe v. Wade. Indeed, Planned Parenthood endorsed against Collins, and an online crowdfunding campaign immediately sprang up to raise $3 million for her eventual, then-undetermined opponent. Then, there were the polls. Democrat Sara Gideon, the 48-year-old speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, led in the final 14 surveys included in the RealClearPolitics polling average. (Collins only led once in a public poll all year.) Quinnipiac showed Collins down by 12 points in September. 

Emerson College had her trailing by 6 in late October. Even the polls showing a close race had Collins doing poorly for an incumbent, winning just 43% in a matchup tested by the Bangor Daily News and 41% according to Colby College. In 2015, a 78% job approval rating in a Morning Consult poll made Collins the second-most popular senator in the whole country. At the beginning of this year, the same poll rated her the least popular senator, with a 52% disapproval rating. Her net approval rating had dropped 10 points since 2019. Finally, Collins’s Democratic challenger was flush with cash. By October, Gideon was ahead of Collins in the money race, having raised $39.4 million in just three months and $63.6 million since announcing her candidacy. 

Gideon was outspending the incumbent 2-to-1. The Senate Democrats’ campaign arm didn’t bother to spend money opposing Collins in her previous reelection contest six years ago. And then Susan Collins came back from the political dead. She won by nearly 9 points. Her 51.1% of the vote prevented her from going into a ranked-choice runoff, even as Biden won by nearly 10 points statewide with 53.4%. And she is now poised to wield even more influence in a closely divided Senate where partisan control will not be decided until the two Georgia runoffs take place early next year. “Her reelection is a real testament to her political skills,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant, a veteran of Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “She returns to the Senate with a lot of political capital and independence. Her colleagues have always had a lot of respect for her and will probably give her even more deference now.” Republicans generally outperformed the polls in 2020. 

This is true even for Trump, especially in the national popular vote (the final Economist poll, for example, had him down 10). Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin was widely written off in 2016 and nevertheless managed to win another term. Most of Gideon’s leads over Collins were not that large. But her accomplishment was different since it relied on more than turning out the red portion of the electorate in a close state and instead on winning over a significant number of Biden voters. Maine has a long history of electing centrist Republicans. Before Collins, there was Olympia Snowe, who rose up from the House to win election to the Senate in 1994. Snowe bucked the national party on abortion and voted to confirm Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, in addition to John Roberts and Samuel Alito. 

She is married to John McKernan, a former governor of Maine and another moderate Republican. Snowe was named one of the country’s best senators by Time magazine in 2006. Her lifetime American Conservative Union rating was just under 48%. Before Collins was elected, her seat was held by William Cohen. The writer David Halberstam described him as “a Republican moderate from Maine, something of a maverick centrist.” Cohen left the Senate and then went on to serve as secretary of defense in the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton. This paved the way for Collins to go from finishing third in the Maine gubernatorial election in 1994, a race that was won by independent Angus King, her current Senate colleague, to winning a Senate seat just two years later. That was the beginning of Collins winning Senate races even when her party’s presidential ticket was a drag on her fortunes. 

She beat Democratic Rep. Joseph Brennan 49% to 44% even as Clinton led Bob Dole by more than 20 points, 51.6% to 30.7%, with independent Ross Perot, who had finished second in Maine in 1992, taking another 14%. Though easily reelected in 2002, Collins had to do it again six years later with Barack Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket. Obama defeated John McCain in Maine, 57.71% to 40.38%. But Collins won another term with 61% of the vote, running not just ahead of McCain but also Obama. She won again with 68% in the more Republican year of 2014. Trump was arguably less of a drag than some of these previous Republican presidential nominees. He flipped a number of Maine’s mill towns red in 2016 and held them in November. This allowed him to carry the state’s 2nd Congressional District, good for one electoral vote, again this year, though Collins ran ahead of him. Yet the two biggest developments in the Maine Senate race were only indirectly related to the president. 

The first was that the revolt by moderates and independents conscripted into the Trump-weary resistance did not fully materialize. “Many Maine independents and Democrats told me they felt they’d been awakened from a period of political complacency — able to see clearly, for the first time, that Collins wasn’t the moderating force in the Senate she claimed to be,” Christina Cauterucci wrote in Slate in September. Perhaps more importantly, the degree to which the race was nationalized and money poured into the state to fund a wave of negative ads turned off Maine voters who had been giving retiring Collins serious thought. “Some of our advantages in that race may have in the end worked against us,” conceded a Democratic consultant. More than $180 million was ultimately spent on the race, much of it from out of state and intensely negative in tone. (Gideon herself was born in Rhode Island, a New England state but to some Mainers a world away, and only moved to Maine in 2004, when Collins was in her second term.) And while not all of it was spent by the Democrats — the Center for Responsive Politics says Republican-leaning groups spent $42 million against Gideon, compared to $52 million by Democratic- leaning groups trying to take out Collins — much of rural Maine came to see Gideon’s campaign as something negative being pushed by outsiders. “What I really think happened was that the national Democratic Party was too heavy-handed,” retired local sportscaster Bill Green, a registered Democrat, told the New York Times. “This was like when you’re a little kid and somebody is bullying somebody. You’re supposed to stop it. It was nothing more sophisticated than that.” The newspaper quoted a second Maine voter as saying, “The approach on the ads and campaigning was disgusting enough that I didn’t want to vote for the person anymore, even though I agreed with the policy stances.” Even some Democrats now wonder if Gideon, who came from an advertising background, was too ad-happy in such a small state. Many of the spots treated Collins as an appendage of Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which is not the perception locals tend to have of their longtime senator, and reached the point of saturation. 

It ran counter to the closing line on her campaign website biography: “As she always has, in the Senate, Sara Gideon will put Maine first.” Now, the question is what comes next for Collins in the Senate. Depending on what happens in Georgia’s runoffs, the upper chamber will be at most 52-48 Republican and at least 51-50 Democratic, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. Collins has served not only with Harris but also Biden himself. She could emerge as a key swing vote. “The reason Susan Collins is returning to the Senate is because the voters in Maine know that she is an independent voice who represents their interests well,” said Republican strategist Christian Ferry. “In a close Senate, one senator can make a big difference, and I expect she has the opportunity to play an even more important role in the coming years.” Gary Cox, a professor of philosophy, peace studies, and language learning at College of the Atlantic, opined in a local newspaper, “Collins may be in a position to shine as an independent and bipartisan legislator and cast deciding votes that may advance the agenda of Maine and the nation.” As vice president, Biden once persuaded another centrist Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, to switch parties in order to have a bigger voice in the Senate and to avoid a GOP primary. He and Obama vowed to help him win the Democratic primary the following year. Specter had clearly hoped to be the sought-after vote as he briefly gave Democrats a filibuster-proof majority. But he ultimately did not have such sway and ceased to be the deciding vote on most legislation once Republican Scott Brown was elected to fill Democratic icon Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat. Specter then lost the Democratic primary. 

Collins would undoubtedly like to avoid that fate. She has remained her cautiously independent self. Just as she voted against Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court after backing previous Trump nominees Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, she opposed Judy Shelton for the Federal Reserve after winning. “In her past statements, Ms. Shelton has called for the Federal Reserve to be less independent of the political branches and has even questioned the need for a central bank,” Collins said in comments released by her office. “This is not the right signal to send, particularly in the midst of the pandemic.” She was among the first Republicans to congratulate Biden as networks began to call the election for the Democratic nominee. “First, I would offer my congratulations to President-elect Biden on his apparent victory — he loves this country, and I wish him every success,” she said in a measured statement. “Presidential transitions are important, and the President-elect and the Vice-President- elect should be given every opportunity to ensure that they are ready to govern on January 20th.” But Collins did not completely abandon Trump. “I understand that the President and others have questions about the results in certain states,” she continued. “There is a process in place to challenge those results and, consistent with that process, the President should be afforded the opportunity to do so.” She urged voters eager for the election to be over to “be patient” and “respect” the “process.” She had taken a similar position during the campaign, saying, “I don’t think the people of Maine need my advice on whom to support for president.” Collins is also mindful of all the liberal interest groups whose causes she has championed who abandoned her in her most competitive race. 

This includes not only Planned Parenthood, which once bestowed upon her its Barry Goldwater Award for high-profile Republican supporters of abortion rights and then boosted Gideon, but also the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s premier gay rights organization. “Sen. Collins is a Republican and knows exactly where she is needed right now,” said a source familiar with her thinking. Maine’s voters thought she was needed in Washington, even if the Democrats recaptured the White House in an apparent rebuke of Trump that did not necessarily extend to other members of her party.