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Why Joe Biden's Maine Victory Didn't Translate Down The Ballot To Sara Gideon

Elise Amendola
Associated Press
Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Sara Gideon speaks to supporters during a launch for Election Day canvassing, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Portland, Maine.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ fifth term comes after a long, bitter campaign. But in the end, her majority lead over Democratic challenger Sara Gideon preempted a ranked-choice voting runoff.

Maine Public chief political correspondent Steve Mistler spoke with All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty about what happened in the contest after a very long night.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Flaherty: The polls leading up to this showed Gideon with either a lead or tied with Collins and I think all of us were bracing for a runoff. What happened?

Mistler: Well, I think it was a combination of things. First of all, the polls in this race — and there were a lot of them — failed to capture a few things. Above all, I don’t think the surveys fully showed how voters were ambivalent about voting Collins out of office. That’s not to say there weren’t indications of that — there were.

There was a lot evidence in the polls that there would be split-ticket voters in this contest, which is to say, there would be voters who picked Democratic vice president Joe Biden, but who also voted to keep Collins in office. But the polls didn’t capture how impactful those voters would be. There could be a couple of reasons for that; maybe these folks were late-breaking undecided voters. It’s unclear. But what we do know is that Collins outperformed President Donald Trump all over the state.

Why was that a problem for Sara Gideon? Well, because her entire campaign attempted to nationalize the race — to handcuff Collins to an unpopular president. Maybe that had an effect for some voters, but clearly not enough to get Gideon over the finish line.

I noticed that Collins won in Lewiston relatively early as the returns came in and that seemed to foreshadow Gideon’s problems in other cities and towns, right?

Precisely. Let’s look at Lewiston for a minute. You’re talking about one of the most populated cities in the state and one that leans pretty heavily Democrat. Biden won Lewiston handily and so did Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden. But not Gideon. She lost it by two points, and I have to say, that’s pretty devastating. If your campaign is trying to run up the margins in places like Lewiston and you can’t do that, you’re not going to win, especially when you’re getting killed in the 2nd Congressional District, which was exactly what happened.

This weakness showed up all over the place in traditional Democratic strongholds. Gideon won towns like Scarborough, Old Orchard Beach, York and Saco, but only by 5- or 7-point margins. Biden won those same places by 20 points and sometimes more. And what’s interesting about that is Gideon’s message was pretty in-sync with Biden’s — there wasn’t a lot of daylight there.

So what do you make of that? Why did Biden’s message resonate there and not Gideon’s?

Well, it’s hard to know exactly why, but one could presume that some Maine voters just wanted to get rid of Trump, but they weren’t ready to go with fully Democratic Congress. That’s usually how split-ticket voters operate.

The other explanation is that Gideon just didn’t give those voters enough of reason to vote for her. I mean, her campaign was really trying to make the race a referendum on Trump and Collins. But that can only get you so far. You need something to really get people on the fence about knocking off an incumbent, especially one who was as popular as Collins once was. Apparently Gideon didn’t do that.

Yeah, about Collins’ popularity. Throughout this race we were constantly reminded that her popularity had fallen off a cliff. Did she suddenly become popular again?

No, I mean, all the surveys, including exit surveys, indicated that Collins was pretty unpopular and a lot of voters thought she was too closely aligned with the president. But maybe some of those voters were convinced Trump would lose and therefore they were less worried about giving Collins a fifth term.

The other explanation is that Collins just ran a good campaign. Sure, she wouldn’t say if she supported the president, sure she dodged questions about it. But what she did do is localize the race — talk about what she’s done over her career, what she’s done this year. You can quibble with whether those claims are everything they’re cracked up to be, but clearly voters found them convincing.

Do you have any lingering thoughts about a campaign that generated so much spending? The last figure I read was that it topped $200 million.

That’s right. It did. But I think there’s something instructive for candidates and others. One of the reasons Gideon was a formidable candidate was because she was so well funded. I mean, she pulled more than $116 million. But the money has its limits.

There are Democratic Senate candidates all over the country who suffered a similar fate yesterday as Gideon. All of them had more cash than they could possibly burn. And in Gideon’s case, a lot of it — about 90 percent — came from out of state.

Collins had a similar reliance on out-of-state funding, but she had a local pitch to Maine voters. Conversely, Gideon’s money seemed to come from people who saw Collins as an avatar for Republicans’ supine response to a very divisive and disruptive president who shatters norms on a daily basis. And she ran a campaign that seemed to channel those desires to punish Collins and Trump. It just wasn’t enough.

As for Collins, I think it will be interesting to see how she operates over the next few years, especially if Biden becomes the next president. Let’s not forget that several left-leaning interest groups yanked endorsements of her and backed Gideon. Can those relationships be repaired? Hard to know. But if they can’t, does that mean Collins will become more of a prototypical Republican? She says she’ll work with anybody, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Nora is originally from the Boston area but has lived in Chicago, Michigan, New York City and at the northern tip of New York state. Nora began working in public radio at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor and has been an on-air host, a reporter, a digital editor, a producer, and, when they let her, played records.
Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.