Dem goes grassroots on centrist dealmaker Collins
© Greg Nash

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsPressure rising on GOP after Trump–DOJ fight’s latest turn Trump's plan to claw back spending hits wall in Congress Dem rep to launch discharge petition to force net neutrality vote in House MORE is a rare breed in the Republican Party.

Probably the most centrist member of the GOP caucus, Maine’s senior senator often seeks to be a dealmaker in an era of deeply partisan politics. Yet during an election cycle when countless centrist Republicans are facing tough primary challenges from ultra-conservative Tea Party candidates, Collins is breezing through her campaign, garnering majority support from both parties in her state and from independents.

 The independent course Collins is charting is a perfect fit for the Pine Tree State, observers say, even though she’s the only Republican running for reelection in a state President Obama won in both 2008 and 2012.

“A lot of the Democrats in Maine are hunters and people who are more rural and are Catholic. It’s a very strange universe up there,” said Matt Gagnon, a Maine Republican strategist. 

Democratic nominee Shenna Bellows is working hard to appeal to that unique crowd of voters, too. A former head of the Maine American Civil Liberties Union, Bellows is making a name for herself as a progressive liberal, but with a libertarian streak.

Bellows has the backing of several progressive groups, including Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. She raised national attention last year when her small-donation campaign outraised Collins in the fourth quarter, taking in $331,000 to Collins’s $315,000.

And Bellows is pursuing a famous Maine political tradition, walking 350 miles across the entire state and stopping at every town in between.

But even this grassroots push might not be enough to break Collins’s hold on the state, or even put a dent in it. The most recent poll of the race, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center for the Portland Press Herald, found Collins crushing Bellows 72 percent to 17 percent, winning the support of 53 percent of Democratic respondents to pad her lead. 

To cause any type of shift in the race, Bellows will ultimately have to win back some of the Democratic base support she is rapidly hemorrhaging to Collins.

The person, not the party

During her three terms in the Senate, Collins has built a reputation as a problem-solver in Washington who often puts aside partisanship to work toward solutions. 

“You frequently see her right in the middle of the legislative mix in Washington,” said Mike Cuzzi, a former Maine Democratic strategist. “I think the senator’s team has done a considerable job continually pushing out that message and basically reinforcing that persona here at home.”

And her approach resonates with Maine, a state that has a history of electing centrist, independent politicians. The state’s junior senator, Angus King, is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.  His predecessor, former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R), also had a history of bipartisanship.

“Mainers respect people who sort of break the mold a little bit, demonstrate their independence and demonstrate their willingness to chart their own course and do what they think is right instead of what the party believes and the president believes,” Gagnon said. “They want somebody independent of mind.”

But such a streak is unusual in a party that’s moved increasingly to the far right nationally. Part of Collins’ repeated success has been her ability to avoid a primary battle against a Tea Party candidate with ideological beliefs more deeply rooted in the conservative realm.

Collins spokesman Lance Dutson said the senator has never felt the heat of an establishment/Tea Party schism because she remains “fully engaged” in the state’s Republican Party. Collins pulls strong support across the political spectrum, including 86 percent of Republicans according to a Portland Press Herald poll.

“She is, at the end of the day, the most conservative person on the ballot,” Gagnon said. “They might make some noise in a primary and say maybe we should have a primary opponent, but it just doesn’t materialize because she is the strongest candidate that we can come up with.”

Cuzzi suggests, though, that the GOP recognizes Collins’s strength in the state and understands that she would be substantially weakened by — or could potentially lose — a primary challenge, especially after they saw Snowe’s seat in 2012 go to the de facto Democrat.

“I think Republicans are cognizant of the fact that with an open Senate seat, if that came to pass, they would have a real battle on their hands and the likelihood of losing that seat and it changing over into a Democratic seat,” he said. “I would anticipate that they try and take every precaution they can to make sure it remains with Susan Collins.”

Part of Collins’s widespread support, according to her campaign, is rooted in the nature of Maine politics and its tendency to have more personal, approachable politicians who really make an effort to meet their constituents. 

“I think that the people of Maine tend to vote for the person, not the party, and I think that’s been the case for a long time, especially in the United States Senate,” Dutson said. 

David vs. Goliath

Shenna Bellows knows she’s up against a powerhouse incumbent. Collins has two decades of political machinery and popularity behind her, and she has a 5-to-1 fundraising advantage over Bellows.

“I think Shenna has a very difficult path ahead of her, even just to get to a majority with her own party right now,” Dutson said. “I think it’s a struggle for her.”

Gagnon agreed that the power of the Collins machine is too great for Bellows to crack, indicating that he was even “sort of pessimistic that she has any chance of breaking 25 points.”

But Bellows is not discouraged. She is passionate about her campaign and about the Mainers she’s meeting on her walk across the state.

“It’s a David and Goliath race,” Bellows told The Hill as she walked mile 81 of her trek. “It’s always a challenge to go up against a well-funded, 18-year incumbent.”

Bellows said the strength of her campaign is in its grassroots approach, and she plans to talk to as many Maine voters as possible to prove that she is more in touch with their needs than Collins.

“We won’t raise more money that Collins in the end, but we can out-organize her,” she said. “In a place like Maine that is like one, small town, grass roots still matters, and we can win in November.

“No one thought that I would outraise Collins in the first quarter. Few people thought I would have enough funds to be on television in July, but we are. Many people think we can’t complete a rigorous schedule that has us walking 350 miles across the state, but we will.”

And though Collins may not see Bellows as much of a threat, Cuzzi said Bellows is challenging the senator with “efficacy and gusto” and that Collins is certainly taking notice and responding. 

Ben Grant, chairman of Maine’s Democratic Party, is confident Bellows is gaining ground and will continue to do so if she and the party are able to create a conversation about Collins’ voting record and her ties to the far right of the GOP. 

“Susan Collins has just been dead wrong on too many issues that impact Maine people and, frankly, the American people over the course of her career,” Grant said. “So the question is: Does it really matter to have one self-styled moderate amongst all the Ted Cruzes and Mike Lees of the world, or would it be better for the country and the state to have another Democrat in the U.S. Senate to help bolster that majority?”

Right now, Grant said, the party is focused on uniting the Democratic base behind Bellows, and he indicated that if she keeps doing her part, progressive groups and national Democrats could get involved. 

“She’s got to keep hitting singles,” he said. “If she keeps hitting singles, eventually that will add up to a lot of runs.”