In a stunning comeback, Republican Sen. Susan Collins has held onto her seat in Maine, defying relentless efforts by Democrat Sara Gideon to tie the career moderate to President Donald Trump and Washington Republicans.
Though Collins had mostly trailed in the polls for months, her race tightened down the stretch as late money poured into the state. The win preserves a small bloc of moderate GOP votes in the Senate — and it could potentially preserve the GOP’s Senate majority, too, as Maine was one of the Democratic Party’s top target states this year.
“I just received a gracious call from Sara Gideon conceding the race,” Collins told a crowd of raucous supporters in Maine.
Collins had won reelection easily since first taking her seat in 1996, even winning big during former President Barack Obama’s wave election in 2008. Born in the state’s rural Aroostook County and making her home in Bangor, Collins stayed popular for years regardless of who was in charge of D.C.
Four years of Trump and a nationwide decline in the number of voters willing to split their tickets presented Collins a challenge like she’d never seen. But in the end, Collins outpaced Trump by a significant margin even as Biden easily won the state.
Gideon, the Democratic speaker of the state House, made the race a referendum on Collins’s alliance with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and her votes for Trump’s nominees. Gideon launched her campaign months after Collins’ vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, which prompted Democratic online donors to pump millions of dollars into a fund for Collins’ eventual opponent.
The Kavanaugh vote was a turning point for Collins. It boosted her among conservative detractors who had panned her as hurting the GOP’s health care efforts, though now she had a number of voters on the left calling Collins a moderate in name only.
While Democrats had worked with Collins for years, they eagerly turned their sights on her in 2020, when she was one of just two Republican senators up for reelection in states Trump lost in 2016. Gideon raised tens of millions of dollars, and outside groups began hitting Collins nearly as soon as the election cycle began.
Gideon’s recruitment seemed like a coup for the Democratic Party. A cautious campaigner, she largely ran as an alternative to Collins, making the argument that Collins was out of step with reliably blue Maine. It excited the party’s national fundraising base but did not sufficiently resonate with Maine’s bipartisan-minded voters.
Collins’s own record was intended to appeal to both parties, though Trump’s polarizing presence atop the ticket made that harder. Collins helped tank the GOP’s attempted repeal of Obamacare in 2017, and she has opposed a number of the president’s nominees, including the recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
But she voted for Kavanaugh and the GOP’s 2017 tax law. And she never revealed whether she supported Trump’s reelection campaign or not, even though she did not support his 2016 campaign.