Susan Collins faces battle of lifetime in Maine

ORONO, Maine — Maine lawns may not yet be overwhelmed by campaign signs, but their airwaves have been taken over by the heated rhetoric of the hottest Senate race in the country.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGraham: GOP will confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election Gardner signals support for taking up Supreme Court nominee this year Tumultuous court battle upends fight for Senate MORE is the centrist Republican incumbent who faces the political fight of her life against state House Speaker Sara Gideon to win another six-year term.

Collins has been vilified by Democrats over her vote to confirm Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughGraham: GOP will confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election Tumultuous court battle upends fight for Senate Fox's Napolitano: Supreme Court confirmation hearings will be 'World War III of political battles' MORE to the Supreme Court despite claims of sexual misconduct.

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It is a decision that has flooded the Maine Senate battle with early money, turning it into one of the most expensive races in the country.

Collins for years has struck an independent voice in a state where a majority of voters have repeatedly picked Democrats to lead the country. But in an increasingly polarized political climate, there are real questions about whether she can survive this year’s contest.

Gideon and Democrats argue that far from being an independent voice, Collins has been loyal to President TrumpDonald John TrumpBubba Wallace to be driver of Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin NASCAR team Graham: GOP will confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election Southwest Airlines, unions call for six-month extension of government aid MORE and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGraham: GOP will confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election Trump puts Supreme Court fight at center of Ohio rally The Memo: Dems face balancing act on SCOTUS fight MORE (R-Ky.) when it most counted, such as on the Kavanaugh vote.

The counter from Collins, who is running for a fifth term, is that she represents Maine and its values — and has throughout a long political career.

“What this race is going to turn on is who is better able to establish their narrative on that question: Has Collins changed or has she not changed? That’s what's going to decide the outcome on this,” Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine told The Hill. 

Gideon, 48, leads Collins by 5 percentage points in the latest Bangor Daily News poll. She is targeting the state’s independent and Democratic voters, who outnumber registered Republicans. Many of these voters for years have split the ticket to back Collins.

“I believe Susan Collins used to represent Maine in a good way, but not anymore,” a man named David, identified as a “former Susan Collins voter,” says in one of Gideon’s ads.  

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Collins’s ads have had their own testimonials, including from a woman helped by Collin’s Lyme disease legislation, and restaurant owner whose business received funding from the Paycheck Protection Program that Collins helped craft.

Gideon has focused on health care, including opioid addiction, and the economy. 

Democrats have sought to cast Collins as out of touch with her state, and the incumbent is pushing back at such assertions. In one spot, old family photos flash by as she talks about her childhood in Caribou, a northern outpost even by Maine standards. 

“My opponents say I’ve changed, but I haven’t,” Collins says, going on to say she’s never missed a Senate vote and “will not back down on doing what I think is right for Maine.”

Kavanaugh isn't the dominant issue if you’re watching television in Maine, but Collins’s vote to confirm him has periodically surfaced in digital ads, particularly after the Supreme Court in June struck down a Louisiana law curtailing access to abortion. Kavanaugh voted with the minority on that case, calling into question whether he broke his pledge to Collins to respect abortion rights.

But another political figure is having a more lasting influence on the race: Trump.

Democrats are painting Collins as a loyal foot soldier to Trump whose votes with the president outnumber those against him.

“The problem is going to be the accumulation of votes,” former Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) told The Hill. “She’s been out in a position of having to vote on whether to impeach [Trump] or not, whether he's handling the COVID crisis well. She's carrying a lot of water on behalf of the administration. I’m not sure that's going to sit well with a lot of people.”

Baldacci praised Collins’s constituent work and her recent focus on the stimulus package. 

“She’s done a lot of work to benefit people and business in Maine. The question is whether that will be a prominent feature and whether it will beat out her support for President Trump.”

It’s been the Lincoln Project, the group founded by George ConwayGeorge Thomas ConwayGeorge and Kellyanne Conway honor Ginsburg Lincoln Project releases new ad blasting Trump as 'a horrible role model' George Conway hits Trump on 9/11 anniversary: 'The greatest threat to the safety and security of Americans' MORE, husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne, that has run ads featuring a favorite criticism from the left: Collins’s tame language to criticize Trump.

“She makes excuses for corruption, for criminality, for cruelty. All while pretending she's worried, concerned, hoping Donald Trump learns a lesson. He never does because she never stands up, never speaks out.” 

Felicia Knight, Collins’s press secretary from 1998 to 2003 and a staffer on her 2008 campaign, said attacks like that miss the point — that her calm and thoughtful responses show she’s the opposite of Trump.

“There was this behavior in the Senate and in society known as civility and comity, and Susan Collins is someone who is not going to debase her own behavior because all of those around her do,” said Knight, who now runs her own public relations firm.

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“The exterior noise is different,” she said of the outside ads. “Folks outside of Maine don't understand the connection she has with the electorate.” 

But observers say this race is different from those before it, and Trump is a big part of that.

“I think Trump has forced the electorate to be on either side. There’s very little in the middle. It’s forced more partisanship and people have gone to their corners,” Baldacci said.

“Unfortunately every time that she chose to support or gave an indication of support that [Trump is] doing the right thing, it inflames the other side,” he added.

The financing has also been different. Even though the Maine Senate race has traditionally generated big out-of-state donations and interest, the Kavanaugh vote brought those funds into the campaign even earlier.  

“She’s never had an opponent who got $4 million in crowdsource money just handed to them for the simple reason that the candidate isn't Susan Collins,” Knight said. 

Another big change is Collins’s standing in the state. An April poll from Bangor Daily News found just 37 percent of voters in the state approve of the job she has done as senator.

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While in 2015 a Morning Consult poll found nearly 80 percent of Maine voters approved of Collins, today she has edged out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to have the highest disapproval rating of any serving senator.  

“If you look at her favorable/unfavorable rating she's under water now, and she's been under water for the last year at that. There was a point not that long ago where she was the most popular politician in the state,” Brewer, the political scientist, said.

Collins needs to secure the independent voters and Democrats she has long relied on that might be influenced by the messaging surrounding Trump complacency, he said, and one way she might be able to do that is by flipping the script.

“What she needs to do with Gideon is try to make the case that Gideon is kind of this tool, that she’s being used by the Democratic Party to try and get control of the Senate, and they're using her to try and further their ends, whereas Susan Collins is trying to work for Maine.”