The 2020 election, by many accounts, was supposed to be a reckoning for Republicans in the U.S. Senate. But it didn’t turn out that way. One reason for that is the victory of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, which might help her party retain its majority and offer her a chance to repair her own image as a centrist.
For more than two years, Collins’ bid for a fifth term was described in ominous terms: “difficult,” “perilous,” “doomed.”
But 17 hours after polls closed in Maine last week, Collins donned a bright red L.L.Bean coat and announced her decisive victory in Bangor.
“I feel that this is an affirmation of the work that I’m doing in Washington to fight hard every day,” she said.
Collins’ critics will no doubt bristle at her claims of validation.
And Collins Chief of Staff Steve Abbott, who was also her campaign manager for the past several months, acknowledged that her vote to acquit President Donald Trump of impeachment charges in February posed a problem.
“We were in a bad spot right then. That was the tail-end of impeachment, which, no surprise, was horrible for us,” he said.
Collins was already being besieged by a well-funded campaign to sandblast her image as a moderate, an effort piggybacking off her vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.
And Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, who had been anointed by national Democrats as her leading challenger, was hauling in millions of dollars in donations and gaining momentum.
“Susan Collins has been in the Senate for 22 years and at one point maybe she was different than some of the other folks in Washington. But she doesn’t seem that way anymore,” a Gideon ad said.
“This was going to be about the Democrats trying to nationalize this election and have Susan Collins tied to President Trump and Senate Majority Leader [Mitch] McConnell,” said Toby McGrath, a political consultant and former deputy chief of staff to independent Sen. Angus King.
McGrath said Gideon’s campaign messaging dovetailed with that national effort. In February it seemed to be working, and Abbott said Collins’ internal polling signaled trouble. But then the pandemic hit, giving Collins a chance to localize the race and remind Maine voters that her longevity in Washington can be an asset.
“Sen. Collins did what she always does and that is that she dove in, she came up with a PPP program. And within a matter of three weeks we had gone from an idea to a $350 billion federal program, which became a $600 billion program,” Abbott said.
The Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, provided forgivable loans to businesses who kept their employees on during the pandemic.
The program had its share of problems, but Collins held it up in debates as evidence of her work, and to criticize Gideon for failing to reconvene the Maine Legislature and deliver aid to Mainers.
“The Legislature has been out of session since March and she has done nothing,” Collins said.
Gideon and the Democrats, meanwhile, continued their effort to handcuff Collins to Trump, pressing her in debates to declare whether she supported his reelection.
“So I want to ask Sen. Collins who she thinks should be leading this country. She has neglected to answer that question and I’d like to give her that opportunity tonight,” Gideon said.
Collins, who declared Trump unfit for office in 2016, never did answer the question. Instead, she continued to localize the race, talking up her clout and experience while reminding voters that she’s a Maine native while Gideon is from Rhode Island.
“By contrast Sara’s been here, what, like 15 years?” Collins said.
Mainers are known for their nativist leanings, a sentiment picked up in a poll by Colby College in late October. But the survey, as well as a dozen other polls by other firms, missed a key dynamic in the closing weeks of the campaign, Colby professor of government Dan Shea said.
“We felt really sure there wouldn’t be very many Biden voters that moved to Susan Collins. And we were wrong,” he said.
While national studies show a decline in split-ticket voting, the 2020 election results suggest that voters made strategic choices when it appeared Joe Biden was poised to win the presidency.
Jessica Taylor, the Senate editor for the Cook Political Report, said those voters could only punish Trump in the 2018 midterm election by voting out Republican members of Congress.
“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,” she said.
And while public polls showed Gideon with either a lead or deadlocked with Collins, there were indications on the ground that unenrolled voters — the largest voting bloc in Maine — were conflicted, especially after she declined to confirm Trump Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
That position did not go unnoticed by Christine Lachance, an undecided voter interviewed in September.
“She is one of the most bipartisan members of Congress so that’s positive. So I’m saying, I really am torn,” she said.
Abbott acknowledged that Collins’ vote against Coney Barrett, on grounds that her nomination came too close to the election, was unpopular with partisans, but he said that’s life as a centrist.
“That is not a politically glamorous position, but it is a position that brings stability and thought and rationality to our government and I think people were yearning for that,” he said.
Gideon’s campaign, which declined on-air interviews for this story, continued on its preordained path. It wasn’t nearly enough.
Collins ran up the score in Maine’s more conservative 2nd Congressional District and held Gideon to single-digit leads in liberal strongholds that gave Biden 20- and 30-point leads.
In the end, Gideon received fewer votes than Trump and lost statewide by a nearly identical 9-percentage point margin.
Taylor said Collins is now poised to connect a Republican-led Senate with the Biden administration.
“I mean, I think clearly a lot of Democratic voters elected her still so that she would still be a bridge,” she said.
And if that happens, Collins might just regain some of the support she lost this year.