Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine, is heading into her most competitive race ever. After decades of representing Mainers on Capitol Hill, the four-term senator is being challenged by Sara Gideon, a progressive, pro-choice Democrat and the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. Gideon is waging a convincing bid in part because she's trying to convince voters of something that perhaps should be obvious: that Collins is who she says she is.
Maine's Senate race is an increasingly important one in the national puzzle of potential red-to-blue political contests. Democrats have a real chance of taking the Senate in November, but that's dependent on some key voters shying away from supporting their incumbent politicians. Four terms later and less than two months out from the election, voters are still somehow asking themselves: Who is Susan Collins? Whose values will she represent in Congress? Typically, these questions don't dog incumbents, but Collins's behavior during the Trump administration is forcing Maine voters to approach this election differently.
In the past four years, Collins has moved to the right of her reputation as a moderate Republican, siding with President Trump on many legislative issues, judicial appointments, and impeachment, as she voted to acquit him during his impeachment trial earlier this year. That's not atypical behavior for a Republican, but it is atypical behavior for Collins.
Collins wasn't always deferential to executive power, nor was she unquestioningly allegiant to partisan politics. As a freshman senator, she made a name for herself working across the aisle, negotiating with Republicans and Democrats to realize compromises on legislation relating to abortion. She voted to acquit President Bill Clinton during his 1998 impeachment trial and voted with Democrats during his administration 49% of the time.
Her ability to work across the aisle during her first term in the Senate impressed onlookers so much that The New York Times wrote of her knack for compromise: "Moderation is more than the political distance from liberal or conservative; it is also a particular temperament, a worldview, a personal chemistry." Collins, politicos felt, had that necessary chemistry. During the Obama administration, she voted with Democrats 85% of the time. She even put her stamp of approval on Dodd-Frank, the consumer protection measure enacted after the 2008 Recession (but only after lobbying to weaken key provisions).
When she was first elected in 1996, Collins declared that she would only serve two terms — 12 years was enough time, in her mind, to serve the people of Maine. But nearly a quarter of a century later, Collins is still commuting between her home in Bangor, Maine, and Washington, D.C. So she stayed, and the independent-thinking senator known for ideological alignment more than party loyalty showed herself again in 2016, when she penned an op-ed for The Washington Post declaring that she wouldn't be voting for then-candidate Donald Trump. "I have become increasingly dismayed by his constant stream of cruel comments and his inability to admit error or apologize," Collins wrote. "The unpleasant reality that I have had to accept is that there will be no 'new' Donald Trump."
But that was then. In retrospect, the statement that she is "increasingly dismayed" falls in line with a trend of hers, where Collins uses moderate and soft language in an attempt to convey abject disgust. As an aside: In 2017 and 2018, Collins voted with the Trump administration 94% of the time.
For 18-year-old Amelia McNeil-Maddox, a Maine voter who will cast her first ballot this fall, Collins's vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was the last straw. "I attended a rally on the day she was voting and there were many sexual assault survivors there, and I remember the energy being so high because we thought there was no way she could vote to confirm him," McNeil-Maddox tells Mic. But Collins did eventually vote for Kavanaugh, despite several credible accusations of sexual misconduct against him.
And not only did Collins vote for Kavanaugh — she also expounded in nearly 45 minutes of justification that she believed Kavanaugh was not an assailant, nor would he disrespect the legal precedent of Roe v. Wade by voting against abortion access in future cases. "I just remember crying into my mom's shoulder as we listened," McNeil-Maddox says. "It was just heartbreaking to know that my senator didn't care about me or any of the people around me." Kavanaugh voted against abortion access in June.
Now, in the wake of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, Collins's role in Supreme Court appointments is once again a national topic of conversation. The senator said that, although she has "no objection" to Trump nominating a replacement and the Senate Judiciary Committee beginning the review process, she doesn't believe a vote should be held prior to the November 3 presidential election. She's one of two Republican senators who have taken this stance, alongside Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) (four or more Republican senators would need to abstain from voting in order to block Trump's nominee) — and her adherence to this statement could be crucial in her own upcoming election.
As a young person and first time voter, McNeil-Maddox wants to be able to trust her elected officials. But she feels that Gen Z voters like herself are less likely to be taken seriously by people like Collins simply because they have less life experience. "It's really hard for young people to feel valued and to feel safe in society when they cannot trust the adults in charge to do right by them," McNeil-Maddox says. And Collins's record on issues that matter to young Americans, such as the Kavanaugh confirmation and climate change, doesn't instill much confidence in McNeil-Maddox. In fact, it makes her feel like the Senator isn't looking out for Mainers at all.
That voting record and partisan ideology shifted after Trump's election, says Toby McGrath, a political consultant and member of the town council in Brunswick, Maine. In July 2017, Collins broke with Republican ranks to vote against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but six months later she voted for Trump's tax package.
"That tax package enabled the Trump administration to basically open the ACA to be defunded," McGrath explains. "You don't get to have it both ways." The tax bill knee-capped the corporate tax rate to the tune of 40%, benefiting the wealthiest 20% of taxpayers. The per capita income in Maine is $31,253, so it's hard to make the argument that her vote was a boon for her constituents. It was clearly, however, an instance of her falling in line with the GOP.
That December was when people started to pay closer attention to Collins, McGrath says, looking for other ways she might say one thing but do another. He says that one of the questions Maine voters might ask themselves leading up to this November's election is, "Who's going to keep me safe?"
The question of personal and communal safety is one that Marie Follayttar, a co-founder of Mainers for Accountable Leadership (MFAL), has been grappling with. MFAL was formed in the wake of the 2016 general election by Republican, independent, and Democratic voters who were concerned about increasingly authoritarian leadership. Given the platform Trump ran on, MFAL wanted to be sure their elected senators had Mainers's backs. The group has since become one of the foremost multi-partisan organizing arms across the state aimed at doing what their name suggests: holding political leaders accountable.
Since Trump's election, Follayttar and others have organized to demand open communication and conversation with Collins, and to engage "activists and 'regular folks' in pro-democratic behavior," Follayttar tells Mic. She says MFAL reached out to Collins and her staff on a number of occasions to set up meetings but were given the runaround, treated as pariahs or vigilante activists without a set of clear and intentional asks. They spoke with her staff once, a meeting that was later followed by radio silence. Follayttar says Collins refused out of hand to meet with the coalition of politically diverse voters that had come knocking on her door, many of whom were supporters of Collins in the past. "We found out pretty quickly the hard way that Collins was not going to work with us," she says.
What stands out to Follayttar about Collins's transformation, and why she'll be voting for Gideon in November, is that meeting MFAL members had with Collins's staff in December 2016. Follayttar tells Mic that they asked Collins's team, "What do you need from us to help Sen. Collins make courageous decisions?"
The response? "She never answered us."
That meeting was the beginning of four years of being passed over, Follayttar says. They continued to hound the senator with calls, protests, and rallies, asking tough questions and attempting to push her to vote against legislation or judicial appointments that would harm Mainers, but Collins didn't listen. Members of MFAL — particularly those who previously supported her — felt that they were lied to by Collins, given her votes. "It's been grueling to see people I love and admire and work with go through these cycles of utter and complete hope and crash when Susan Collins ultimately has done the wrong thing. It's like watching everyone in this dramatic, abusive dance that won't end," Follayttar says.
That dance might end this November, if Gideon's bid for office is successful. Gideon, who has been endorsed by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as well as the Planned Parenthood Action Fund (which had, until this year, endorsed Collins for each of her Senate runs), is also running on a platform of being able to work across the aisle. Gideon boasts that in 2018, she built a coalition of Democrats and Republicans to override the Maine governor's veto on legislation relating to access to Narcan, the life-saving treatment for patients who have overdosed.
Meanwhile, Collins may be losing the faith of more than just voters. According to Bangor Daily News, Angus King (I), the other senator from Maine, previously told Maine Public Radio that he's "probably going to stay out of the election this year" — quite a change from publicly endorsing Collins in 2014.
Gideon isn't nearly as widely known in the state as Collins is, a function of the reach of their political roles and the sheer amount of time that Collins has served in D.C. But that could be a good thing, giving Gideon more room to make a first impression.
Recent polling shows Gideon leading by double digits ahead of November's general election, signaling that the most expensive race in Maine history might lead to one of the greatest upsets as well. In her last election, Collins beat her opponent with 69% of the vote, drawing from a large swath of Mainers from different political parties. Neither party has a strong hold on registered voters in Maine; as of the March 2020 primary election, registered Democrats accounted for 36% of voters, while Republicans accounted for 27.5%. (32.5% of registered voters were unenrolled, while 4% were registered Green party.)
For those who are frustrated with the way Collins has legislated in the past four years, it may not matter that Gideon lacks the name recognition. The fact that Collins is facing a competitive primary for the first time in quite some time is gratifying in and of itself. "I'm really grateful that Sara has made this incredible step forward to run against Susan Collins and that she had a landslide victory in the primary," Follayttar says.
But if Gideon wins, that doesn't mean MFAL will let up. Follayttar tells Mic, "We will absolutely hold her to account...and move her on the issues. I think it's important moving forward that we create an expectation that our elected representatives consult with frontline communities."
There is a real subset of Maine voters who feel left behind by Collins. It's less about issues or policy, and more about personhood and integrity. As McNeil-Maddox says of Gideon, "I believe that she is going to take Mainers seriously and going to represent us fairly in Congress." But Collins, she says, "has continuously shown that she does not want to listen to voters. I hope Sara Gideon will be able to do things better."
Whether or not that hope is fulfilled is largely dependent on turnout this November. Anna Kellar, the executive director of League of Women Voters of Maine, says that in previous years, Maine voter turnout has been higher than the national average, but even still, "the intensity of people's political opinions and their desire to get out and vote is much higher than it has been in the past." Part of that desire to participate is born out of the Collins-Gideon contest specifically, she says. "People are increasingly really passionate about the Senate race, because it's such a nationally important race, it's been on TV here, and [it's] constantly been talked about. It's very high-profile."
If Gideon can oust Collins, the last standing Republican in New England, it will signal that Mainers want a senator who sees herself as accountable to them. Time will tell. As McGrath says, "People don't vote just against someone, they also want to vote for someone."
Mic reached out to the Gideon and Collins campaigns, as well King's office, but did not hear back by the time of publication.