BRUNSWICK, Maine — Voters like Renee Givner of Falmouth, Maine, are the kind of independents who historically have handed Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) a resounding victory, term after term.
“I really think Susan Collins did a good job at one time, and I trusted her at one time,” Givner told me. This year, though, Givner “had to become a Democrat,” and will vote for Collins’s Democratic opponent, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, in one of this year’s most competitive and expensive Senate campaigns.
“This is the most important election in my life — this is it,” Givner said after a recent Gideon campaign event. “If the Senate continues to be run by Mitch McConnell, we are in worse trouble than anyone expects.”
In past years, Collins cruised to reelection with a voter coalition made up of Republicans, independents, and Democrats who liked her willingness to buck her party. But in 2020, her future in the Senate looks much more uncertain.
Susan Collins is the lone New England Republican senator left in a party dominated by President Donald Trump — and the once-powerful, bipartisan “mod squad” of the US Senate is a shell of its former self.
“Even before I left, they were down to four or five of them,” said Jane Calderwood, who served as chief of staff for Collins’s former longtime colleague Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME). “They used to joke they could hold their weekly lunch in a phone booth.”
The middle Collins occupies has shrunk dramatically over the years, from approximately 27 senators in 2005 to just six in 2013, per analysis by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver. Just three Republican senators with a track record of voting against their own party remain: Collins, and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Mitt Romney (R-UT). Given Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent death and the looming fight over confirming her replacement, the stakes for this unpredictable group of senators have never been higher.
Collins is caught between Trump voters who think she should embrace the president more fully, and those who think she hasn’t done enough to stand up to him. She needs both to win. Polls show a tight race, with Gideon ahead slightly. While a recent Quinnipiac University poll found Gideon with a 12-percentage-point lead, operatives in both parties say the gap is in the single digits — closer to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll showing Gideon ahead by 5 percentage points.
“We are confident that when Mainers look at their options in this race, they will choose to re-elect a Senator who is an experienced, proven, effective leader; knows every corner of the state; and was raised with Maine values,” Collins campaign spokesperson Annie Clark told Vox in a statement.
Trump looms large over the races of vulnerable GOP senators across the country. Though many have embraced the president, Collins has stayed silent on the subject of her support for Trump’s own reelection bid; she has repeatedly declined to comment on whether she’s voting for him.
“What I can tell you is that she is just so surprised that so many people who have supported her for so many years are not supporting her today; she can’t figure it out,” said Portland, Maine, real estate developer Joe Boulos, a longtime Collins supporter and friend. “I think she’s not running against Sara Gideon, she’s running against the contempt and dislike of Trump and her [Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh vote.”
With another Supreme Court confirmation battle brewing, it’s too early to tell whether Collins’s stance on Ginsburg’s seat moves the needle closer to her or to Gideon. But Maine voters are well aware their state could shift the balance of power in the US Senate.
Collins’s brand is being complicated by Trump
Sitting outside the Penobscot Snowmobile Club in Hermon, Maine, Collins looked up as a military plane flew overhead.
“The sound of freedom,” Collins said through her red-, white-, and blue-striped mask. Moments before, she posed for photos with members of four regional snowmobile clubs next to a massive orange snowmobile trail groomer — the result of federal USDA grant money Collins helped secure to help the clubs boost regional tourism in Maine’s largely rural Second Congressional District.
Though Collins was speaking at the club in her official Senate capacity, events like these demonstrate the longtime senator’s primary reelection pitch. Collins frequently points out that should Republicans hold the majority, she’s next in line to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. She’s also made the Paycheck Protection Program, and the small-business loans it generated…