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Unfazed By Record Spending, Maine's Senate Contest Is Narrow As Ever

Kris Bridges
For Maine Public
Susan Collins (left) and Sara Gideon at a recent Senate debate hosted by Maine Public in Augusta.

The long and wildly expensive Maine U.S. Senate race is drawing to a close. But after more than $100 million spent, a blizzard of nonstop ads and a campaign made unconventional by the pandemic, the contest could hinge on whether a majority of Maine voters believe Republican Sen. Susan Collins has changed during the presidency of Donald Trump. That’s the argument made by Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, who is within striking distance of knocking off the only Republican member of Congress in New England.

Despite the efforts of a small army of consultants, deep-pocketed super PACs and nearly $100 spent for each of Maine’s 1.4 million residents, the U.S. Senate race has produced no knockout blows.

Instead, polls show that the most expensive race in Maine history is tighter than ever and dominated by two competing narratives relentlessly pursued by the front-runners.

“She simply doesn’t have the depth of knowledge and understanding of Maine people,” Collins says of Gideon.

As Collins tells it, Gideon is inexperienced, “risky” and a puppet for the Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate desperate to regain a majority they lost five years ago. In recent weeks the Maine native has attempted frame the Rhode Island native as a carpetbagger with neither the clout nor knowledge to help Maine residents.

“By contrast Sara’s been here what, 15 years?” Collins said during an interview with Maine Public Radio earlier this month.

Collins’ comments could appeal to some Mainers’ famously nativist leanings. And her touting of experience is designed to keep the race local and away from the issues that have her locked in a dead heat with Gideon, who began the race as a relatively unknown speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.

But there are several big issues shaping the race — and one man in particular.

“Sen. Collins may not want to be seen here today, but make no mistake, over the past four years she has chosen, over and over again, to stand and stand up for Donald Trump and his priorities ahead of Mainers’,” Gideon said during a event in Bangor ahead of President Trump’s visit there on Sunday.

Gideon has honed her attempts to handcuff Collins to a president who trails former vice president Joe Biden by double digits statewide.

Collins is outperforming Trump in the polls, but Democrats who view her as an avatar for Republicans’ unwillingness to challenge Trump have filled Gideon’s campaign coffers with more cash than it can possibly burn.

Still, Gideon’s fundraising — the fourth highest of the candidates running in 35 Senate races nationwide — hasn’t delivered a significant lead in the polls, nor have persistent attacks designed to paint Collins as corrupted by D.C. politics.

“Because Susan Collins voted twice to block cheaper prescription drugs and to gut affordable health coverage for Mainers. So why did Susan Collins change? That’s not hard to see at all,” an ad by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee claims. It’s part of a $10 million push to help Gideon across a finish line that could end in a ranked-choice voting runoff.

At the same time, Gideon continues to play up Collins’ votes for the president’s judicial picks and a looming threat to the Affordable Care Act.

Collins’ sharp decline in popularity can be traced back to her vote for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, but Gideon and Democrats continue to hammer the Republican’s votes for nearly 200 judicial picks throughout the federal court system.

“Those 181 judicial nominees that she chose to confirm, some of them were rated unqualified by the American Bar Association. And some of them came with distinct social and political agendas,” Gideon said during Maine Public’s senate debate.

Collins countered in the same debate that 84 percent of those judges received some support from Democrats.

“A very misleading and unfair attack,” she said.

“We’ve appointed more than 200 conservative judges to our federal courts at every level. And they are all men and women who will uphold all the God-given liberties enshrined in our constitution like the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech and the 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms,” said Vice President Mike Pence during a recent campaign stop in Hermon, speaking enthusiastically about the president’s nomination of conservative judges.

His remarks and the event highlighted the difficulty Collins has separating herself from the Trump administration.

At the same time, Collins has tried not to alienate the president’s supporters while local Republicans attempt to consolidate conservative support for her reelection.

“I’ve had so many folks tell me, ‘Oh, Susan it’s over for her.’ It’s not over for her. We need the Senate to help President Trump win the country,” said former Republican Gov. Paul LePage at Pence’s rally.

LePage’s remarks were immediately framed by Democrats as evidence that a vote for Collins is a vote for Trump.

Collins has insisted throughout the campaign that she’s as independent as ever.

“Nobody dictates how I’m going to vote,” Collins said in a recent interview with Maine Public Radio.

In the closing days of the campaign the challenge for Collins might be convincing the winnowing number of undecided voters that nothing has changed — and that nothing will if she and Trump are reelected.

It’s the opposite for Gideon, who must also prove to voters that she’s the moderate that Collins has long claimed to be.