Gianni Sarra’s Senate Series: MAINE

One of the most important states in determining control of the Senate will be in Maine. Long-term Senator, Susan Collins, is the sole Republican left in New England’s congressional delegation. Though Maine leans towards the Democrats, Collins was able to win her previous elections in landslides thanks to a reputation as an independent-minded moderate.

The Trump era, however, has dealt a heavy blow to that reputation, and now polling shows Collins narrowly behind in her fight to get reelected in November. How good are her chances, and what was it exactly that caused her situation to become so perilous?

Susan Collins has long enjoyed an exceptional degree of cross-over support. In 2008, for example, a Democratic wave year that saw Barack Obama elected as President and Democrats entrench control over Congress, she beat a much-touted challenger in the form of US Representative Tom Allen with over 61% of the vote. Six years later, Collins defeated Shenna Bellows, a non-profit executive director, with over 68% of the vote. Though Maine has drifted slightly to the right in recent years – with Republicans now having a decided advantage in the rural 2nd congressional district – Collins’s success has been mostly independent of the Republican brand as a whole. Even when other Republicans have been struggling to come close in Maine, she has enjoyed overwhelmingly high approval ratings.

This is critical to her survival in a state that still, as a whole, favours Democrats.

Collins has been a constant fixture of Maine politics for decades now. After a long career in government, Collins was the Republican nominee for Governor of Maine in 1994 – she came third, losing to independent candidate Angus King. She narrowly won one of Maine’s Senate seats in 1996, however, and has served as Senator since then, winning re-election three times by increasingly impressive margins. Collins’s good electoral streak has, essentially, been due to having a reputation as a moderate, an independent. For the longest time, she shared that reputation with Olympia Snowe. Snowe was Maine’s other Senator from 1995 to 2013, and also a moderate Republican. Though the two were not personally close – most described their relationship as professional at best, yet often it was described as chilly and competitive – they usually voted in lockstep and their offices often collaborated on many key local issues.

As a state Maine rather likes its independent and centrist figures, and for the past few years Collins has served alongside a Senator without a party label. When Snowe retired in 2012, she was replaced by Angus King, the same King who delivered Collins the sole loss of her political career back in 1994. Upon being elected, he chose to caucus with the Democrats and has, on the big party-line issues such as healthcare, taxes and impeachment, voted with the Democrats. He is a centrist, though, and has a completely different political profile to the other independent New England Senator who caucuses with the Democrats, one Bernie Sanders.

For most of her political career, Collins has been able to lean into that political culture and easily resist national tides. The Trump era, however, has arguably destroyed that reputation. Though she joined with fellow Republicans Lisa Murkowski and John McCain in defeating the Trump-backed healthcare bill and has broken with the President on issues such as net neutrality and a couple of high-level appointments, she has backed Trump in critical votes on most of his agenda.

Perhaps the moment that heralded the end of her political security was the Brett Kavanaugh nomination. Trump nominated Kavanaugh to a Supreme Court vacancy and, with each judge on the Court a potentially crucial deciding vote on issues as varied as abortion rights and environmental regulation for decades to come, the nomination was always going to be controversial. As the nomination made its way through the Senate, three accusations of sexual assault and misconduct were levelled against Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh’s defence in Senate hearings was combative and conspiratorial, showing little sympathy or contrition. Trump, of course, backed Kavanaugh to the hilt and demanded his fellow Republicans do the same.

Ultimately, the Senate was divided. After fellow moderate Republican Lisa Murkowski confirmed her opposition and with moderate West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin clearly not keen to be the deciding vote, Collins emerged as the Senator who would decide to confirm or reject Kavanaugh. In a floor speech, she expressed “concerns”, but announced she would vote to confirm him. The speech, and Collins’s concerns, was widely mocked by Democrats, seen as her pretending to have been a swing vote when really her mind had already been made up. Manchin followed Collins in backing Kavanaugh, and, with only Murkowski and Manchin breaking party lines, Kavanaugh was approved. In percentage terms, his confirmation was the closest of any Supreme Court Justice in American history.

The new dimension to Collins’s reputation developed in the aftermath of the vote – as someone who will express her “concerns” with the Trump administration but do little substantive to challenge him or his politics – has followed her since. It has been entrenched by impeachment. Though she criticised his actions with Ukraine, she said that his actions were not impeachable and expressed a belief that Trump would learn from the scandal to be more “cautious” with Presidential power in the future. Her positions on Kavanaugh and impeachment prevented a primary challenge from the right, which would have all but guaranteed a Democratic pickup in November, but they greatly reduced her own strength in the general.

In a further sign Maine’s strong independent streak is here to stay, and a potential disrupting force in any election in the state, Maine is the first in the union to implement ranked-choice voting, allowing voters to vote for third party or independent candidates without fearing a wasted vote. The reform arguably contributed to the 2018 defeat of the former Representative for the 2nd district, Republican Bruce Poliquin, who secured more first preference votes than his Democratic challenger but ultimately fell behind as the voters for minor candidates broke against him. It’s unknown what impact ranked-choice voting will have in Collins’s race, but it all but eliminates the prospect of the vote being split for either left or right. In a very close race, it could be decisive.

Polling-wise, Collins is in danger like never before. Her once sky-high approval ratings, while not quite as dire as they were in the immediate aftermath of the Kavanaugh vote, now consistently have her as one of the most divisive Senators in the country. Collins, though long considered a touch more conservative than Snowe, is still considered one of the more effective Senators at bipartisan cooperation and one of the more likely Senators to break with the party whips – but the high profile of her Kavanaugh and impeachment votes have destroyed her reputation among left-of-centre voters. The crossover support that she enjoyed from Maine Democrats, many of whom viewed her as a valuable “good Republican”, has now largely evaporated. Her newfound vulnerability in the wake of the Kavanaugh vote, and the massive boost in fundraising for any opponent of hers, meant that there was much talk about who Democrats could nominate to challenge her. Author Stephen King and former UN Ambassador Susan Rice were subjects of speculation.

The Democrats look set to nominate Sara Gideon, the only credible candidate in the race. Gideon is the Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. She received endorsements from much of the party establishment and raised over one million dollars in her first week officially campaigning. Currently Gideon enjoys a narrow polling lead over Collins. The race is one of the most competitive of the cycle, and will be one of the most important in determining which party secures control of the Senate.

Gianni Sarra is a PhD candidate at King’s College London.  He is a recipient of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership studentship award and his doctoral research is on ‘The Dirty Rules Dilemma: Achieving Justice in Conditions of Corruption’.