The U.S. Senate race in Maine is mercifully over, but politics fiends here and across the country just can’t quit it.
There are good reasons for that.
The public polling in the race missed some key dynamics that propelled Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to her fifth term, now poised to tie former Maryland U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski as the longest-serving woman in Congress. There are a lot of unknown factors in the story of how Collins did it and how Democratic challenger Sara Gideon missed the mark. However, a big factor is that Collins leveraged her experience and pandemic response to localize the contest and move it away from the trouble she faced following her votes to acquit President Donald Trump of impeachment charges.
“We were in a bad spot right then,” Collins’ campaign manager and chief of staff Steve Abbott told Maine Public Radio this week. “That was the tail-end of impeachment, which, no surprise, was horrible for us.”
The trouble was particularly acute when Collins told CBS News’ Nora O’Donnell that the notoriously unrepentant Trump had learned his lesson from the trial. Collins’ remark shadowed her for months and became a punchline for liberal commentators, not to mention Gideon’s campaign.
The episode fed an overarching national narrative that Republican members of Congress were going down along with Trump because of their nonresponses to his conduct.
That obviously didn’t happen. Republicans are not only poised to hold a slim advantage in the Senate, but they gained seats in the House when they were supposedly playing defense all over the country. (That’s one reason why national groups abandoned Republican Dale Crafts in his bid to knock off Democratic Rep. Jared Golden in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.)
So what the heck happened?
Jessica Taylor, of The Cook Political Report, offered a theory in an interview with Maine Public Radio. She said Republicans may have actually benefited from having Trump at the top of the ticket. Why? Because voters angry with his conduct could finally punish the president instead of just his party. That wasn’t the case during the 2018 midterms when Democrats rode a national wave to retake the U.S. House of Representatives and make gains in state legislatures and governors offices.
“This time though, you could vote against the president, but you could also vote for your Republican senator or the Republican member of Congress that you liked. And no one typified that more than Susan Collins,” Taylor said.
Given the number of voters who picked Collins and president-elect Joe Biden this year, Taylor’s explanation makes a lot of sense.
But there could have been another factor explaining the explosion in split-ticket voting at a time when some really smart people, including those at the Pew Research Center, told us ticket-splitters would make up a very small portion of the electorate.
Several weeks before the election, the prevailing national narrative was that Biden was going to win the presidency, potentially in a landslide.
Did that narrative help Collins and her Republican colleagues? Possibly.
Polling of the Senate race didn’t track it, but it seems plausible that some voters picked Collins because they were confident Biden would win. That would be especially true if those same voters were worried about Democrats controlling Congress and the presidency.
Nevertheless, Collins’ win last week was also an outlier in an eight-year trend in which voters have overwhelmingly favored U.S. senators from the same party as their presidential preference.
As Taylor pointed out, 122 of 139 Senate races have gone the same way as the presidential race did in their state since 2012. In 2016, every single Senate race broke the same way as that state’s presidential vote.
The trend will continue this year. Thirty-two of the 35 Senate races broke the same way as states’ presidential preference. Two possible exceptions include Georgia, which has been called for Biden and where two runoffs will determine winners of Senate contests. But right now the only exception is Maine, where Biden and Collins won handily.
Election for top election official
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap will soon leave the office after eight consecutive years in office and 14 years total. That’s touched off a race to determine his successor, but it’s one in which Maine voters aren’t allowed to participate.
In 24 states, voters pick the secretary of state. Maine, New Hampshire and Tennessee elect them via the Legislature.
The election for secretary of state will take place Dec. 2, the first day of the regular session. However, with Democrats controlling both the House and Senate, the race could effectively be determined when the parties nominate their candidates Dec. 1.
There are seven Democrats who have publicly declared their candidacy. The most recent is state Sen. Shenna Bellows of Manchester, who was recently elected to her third term. Bellows is the former director of the ACLU of Maine and is expected to campaign on her experience there fighting for voting rights and against restrictions that can limit voting access.
Former Portland state Rep. Erick Jorgensen is also running, as is outgoing House majority leader Matt Moonen, also of Portland. Rep. Craig Hickman, of Winthrop, has declared his candidacy, along with former Yarmouth Rep. Janice Cooper, former state Sen. Justin Chenette, of Saco, and former Rep. Tom Bull, of Freeport.
It’s not clear whether any Republicans will run for the office, but they would likely be long shots because Democrats have the majority in the Legislature.
Collins the conquerer?
Collins’ victory appears to be the talk of the Beltway, or at least among conservatives who are so overjoyed with her victory that they’ve taken to likening her to an assassin.
“Susan Collins crushes her opponents. She’s not meek, she’s Don Corleone. She’s savage,” wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan.
“She deserves the respect of her party. Her male colleagues who so often patronize her, she could teach them a few things. Maybe they’ll ask. It’s 2020, the year of shocks.”
Texas Sen. John Cornyn was apparently inspired.
On his personal Instagram page he shared a cartoon of Collins sitting on a throne built with skulls of her vanquished foes.
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