Many Maine voters like Susan Collins. It may not be enough.

WATERVILLE, Maine — Walking around Maine with Sen. Susan Collins (R), it’s clear that after a quarter century of representing the state, Mainers know her and like her.

Yet even as these voters hold Collins in high esteem, they may vote her out of office next month.

Democrats have a strong chance of defeating Collins, who reignited ire from the left with her vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and who has been facing a steady line of attack for not being tougher on President Trump. 

On the campaign trail, Collins is as eager to show her roots with the state run deep as her competitor Sara Gideon is to show that Collins has changed over her 24 years in the Senate.

On a recent rainy October afternoon, Collins walked the streets of Waterville, visiting local businesses that took the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans she helped conceive while looking over construction of a reimagined Main St. that got federal funding.

Collins is on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation  — a fact she mentioned several times during her most recent debate with Gideon, a Democrat serving as Maine’s state House Speaker.

In criss-crossing the state, Collins is leaning into the work she’s done in Washington, a way for the four-term senator to show the value of her incumbency. 

In Waterville, the spectacle of TV cameras and local business leaders following Maine’s senior senator around town practically halts traffic. People stop to say hello or just to gaze. 

“I’m trying to get another round for the hardest hit,” Collins tells one business owner about the PPP.

Collins’s traipse through town illustrates the benefits of connections built over a lifetime of working in Maine — connections she now hopes will save her in a difficult reelection climate.

At one stop, she chats with a jeweler whose family is also from Collins’s hometown of Caribou —their parents went to high school together. At another, a restaurant owner thanks her for having stopped by their location in Windham just a few weeks prior.

Even when an employee at one business seems perhaps less than thrilled to meet her, Collins tries to disarm her.

“I like your Ruth Bader Ginsburg pin,” she tells one shopworker. 

The latest Bangor Daily News poll shows Collins a point behind Gideon, a big gain since surveys the week before showed her trailing by as many as 5 points. In 2014 and 2008, Collins polled at least 20 points ahead of her challenger.

The closeness of the race surprises Jeff Corey, whose jewelry store Collins visited while in Waterville.

“She is just such a respected senator. She’s spoken for the state of Maine; she’s brought so much to our state over the years, And, you know, especially during these times where she’s known as the most bipartisan senator in the U.S. Senate, I would think that she would be ahead by a wide wide margin,” he said.

Corey believes the state is full of people like him — people who are not down-ticket Republican voters but who will cross the aisle to vote for Collins because they’ve seen years of her in action.

“People know her in the state of Maine,” Corey said shortly before Collins’s visit, calling her a friend of industries ranging from blueberries to lobster to timber and paper.

“I think it’s very difficult to poll Maine people … I think there’s a silent majority in the state of Maine that will support her very strongly when it comes to their vote.”

Democrats outnumber independents and independents outnumber Republicans in Maine, but Collins has won each of her reelection campaigns with about 60 percent of the vote — and with 68 percent in 2014. But even clinching a victory this year would mean a huge loss in past support.

“It sounds like you’re watching too much television,” Collins said, when asked by The Hill about voters who say that after years of supporting her they won’t be doing so this year.

“Because in keeping with me today — and Waterville is largely a Democratic city — the number of people who would come up and wanted pictures or to tell me that they were voting for me occurred in every single stop along the way. So, that was very heartening to me, and I will just keep doing what I’ve always done and that is serving the people of Maine, acting with integrity, and doing what I think is right.” 

Later that day at an event 30 miles from Waterville in Farmington, Gideon hosts her 33rd “Supper with Sara,” taking questions from voters as they munch on pizza and salad. 

Gideon faces different challenges than the woman she’s seeking to replace. Even after four years as Speaker in the state House and eight years as a legislator, Gideon’s goal is to introduce herself as an alternative to a leader she says no longer represents Maine’s independent streak. 

Gideon’s event is at a beer garden nestled in rolling farmland, and she moves from table to table under a tent to chat with each party before coming up to the front to take questions.

It’s no surprise that the voters there aren’t satisfied with Collins.

But even those who aren’t yet committed to vote for Gideon say they were drawn to the event after questioning their past support for Collins. 

Martha Kelly said she has “always” voted for Collins.

“But I couldn’t vote for her again,” she said. “Trump lost the election for her. … I want her to be braver and stand up for what’s right.”

A few tables over, Jane Dipompo also mentions Trump when saying she won’t vote for Collins again.

“We’ve been disappointed with what we’ve seen in Washington, so it’s time to make a change … [we need] somebody who’ll stand up for what’s right, what’s decent.”

Her husband, Nelson, chimes in to joke that Collins “knows how to count to 50. When they need her vote, she’s reliable.”

When she takes the stage, Gideon runs through her positions on climate change and health care.

“I mentioned some of these issues because I expect they are things that we all value,” Gideon tells the crowd.

“But I also mentioned these issues because they are the things that are at the greatest risk right now. And they are the ways in which I think we feel very left behind by Sen. Collins, and by her decision during the past four years to side with this president and with this Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about 94 percent of the time, at a time when quite honestly, we would need an independent senator the most.”

The measured words from both candidates are a bit of a contrast to the airwaves. The $40 million race has made it almost impossible to watch TV or listen to the radio without coming across an attack ad, and those from outside the campaign have been particularly pointed.

Gideon’s ads reflect the careful line she has to walk in attacking an opponent who not long ago was the most popular politician in the state. They often feature former Collins voters who say she’s changed.

“One thing that I’ve experienced firsthand in this race is that people will often say to me, even as they say, ‘Sara, I’m supporting you in this race, I’m voting for you in this race,’ they might also say something like, ‘I could never vote for Susan Collins again, but I think she’s a nice lady,’ ” Gideon says after dinner. 

“And so I think that’s what we’re seeing reflected here, that people don’t want to be angry about it, but they do need a change in direction.” 

Tags Brett Kavanaugh Donald Trump Maine Mitch McConnell Ruth Bader Ginsburg Sara Gideon Senate race Supreme Court Susan Collins
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