Maine’s Referendum on Susan Collins’s Reputation

On a recent Saturday morning, in the city of Auburn, Maine, Susan Collins, the state’s senior U.S. senator, arrived to inaugurate a bell tower at the edge of the Androscoggin River. A group of forty or so people awaited her in a small park, where white benches formed an amphitheatre. The park and the bell tower were part of a waterfront-revitalization effort for Auburn, the fifth-largest city in Maine, for which Collins had secured federal funding. As one of the few Republican senators who has been known occasionally to cast a vote against her Party, Collins has become a polarizing national figure, criticized by Democrats as much for her pretenses of moderation as for her standard Republican politics. But in the cities, towns, and villages of Maine, where Collins goes to celebrate the results of government grants with her constituents and lend senatorial gravitas to bean suppers, ribbon cuttings, and official tours, it’s possible in her presence to forget the derangements of national politics and to imagine, for a moment, that we live in a time of decorum and optimism.

Small and thin and wearing a short navy-blue trenchcoat, Collins gave the mayor of Auburn a dainty elbow bump as she took to the podium. She carefully removed a face mask emblazoned with the pine tree and North Star of the flag of her state, then gazed at the assembled group, beaming.

“It is wonderful to be with you today,” she began, “at what is truly a joyous celebration.” The October sun suddenly seemed warmer and more golden; her audience beamed back. “Wasn’t it wonderful to hear the bells peal again?” As she said the words, the crowd burst into applause, as if only now realizing that it had indeed been thrilling, that the new bell tower, a scaffold of black steel with a weathervane on top, was, as Collins put it, “gorgeous,” and not only an object of exceptional aesthetic merit but “the second-highest monument in the state of Maine.”

“Congratulations to all of you, on truly an extraordinary accomplishment,” she said. “You did it!”

Collins, who is sixty-seven years old, was born in the Maine town of Caribou, in Aroostook County, an area near the border with Canada known for its potato farms. Her parents were the proprietors of a multigenerational lumber business, and were both elected to local political offices in an era when the Republican Party’s dominance of state politics was beginning to wane. She started her own political career as a staff member to William Cohen, a Republican representative from Maine who later became a senator. In 1996—after an unsuccessful run for governor, two years before—she ran to succeed him in the Senate, where she has been ever since.

Today, Maine is a state where the numbers of registered Democrats, Republicans, and Independent voters are roughly equal, with Democrats only in the past year overtaking Independents as the largest single group. Until 2013, Collins served alongside the moderate Republican Olympia Snowe; the current junior senator from Maine, Angus King, is a registered Independent. The political tradition of nonpartisanship seems to be an anachronistic point of pride for Mainers which borders on an affectation. Collins became known for co-sponsoring bills across party lines and voting against her Party’s majority on high-profile bills: she broke with the party line to back the 2009 financial stimulus and the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which discriminated against gay people in the military. (A study in Roll Call found that, in 2019, she still voted with her Party majority seventy-eight per cent of the time, although only forty per cent of the time on “key votes.”) With a population of less than 1.4 million, Maine is small enough to allow Collins a certain intimacy with its small towns and industries. She has built a career presenting herself less as a politician interested in systemic national problems than as one who can bring funding home: channelling military contracts to her state’s shipyards, getting grants for regional airports, and advocating for blueberry farmers, loggers, and lobstermen. With each reëlection, she earned a broader share of the vote and grew her reputation for discipline and commitment. She is known for never missing a vote in her twenty-three years in the Senate, and has voted more than seven thousand times. She was unmarried until the age of fifty-nine, and does not have children. She is the most senior Republican woman, and the only remaining Republican from New England, in Congress. If reëlected, she will be in line to become the chair of the Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful positions in Congress. In 2014, sixty-eight per cent of Maine voters cast a ballot for her. As she began her most recent term, she had one of the highest state approval ratings in the Senate, second only to Bernie Sanders.

Then Donald Trump was elected. At first, Collins, like many Republicans, spoke out against him. In 2016, after he became the Party’s nominee for President, she published an op-ed in the Washington Post withholding her support, writing that she was “dismayed by his constant stream of cruel comments and his inability to admit error or apologize.” Trump lost Maine to Hillary Clinton by less than three percentage points. During the first two years of his Presidency, when Republicans had only a narrow majority in the Senate, Collins became one of a small group who were known to cross party lines in decisive votes. She had voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2009, and to repeal it in 2011 and 2015, but in 2017 it was her vote against her Party, along with those by John McCain and Lisa Murkowski, that twice saved the A.C.A. from repeal; on her return to Bangor, she was spontaneously applauded in the airport for standing on principle.

But for many supporters in Maine—exactly how many will be made known on Election Day—the A.C.A. vote would not redeem what came next. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that a Republican voted for a tax cut, but Collins’s support of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act later came to haunt her. For many Democrats and Independents, the bill was seen as a giveaway to corporations and the wealthy which ballooned the federal deficit and threatened the social safety net. It also repealed the individual-mandate penalty of the A.C.A., which left the law open to the legal challenge that it now faces in the Supreme Court. (More than sixty-two thousand people in Maine received health coverage from the A.C.A., and voters indicated their support for the bill by restoring the expansion of Medicaid by popular vote, after the former Republican governor Paul LePage had restricted it.)

Perhaps the most politically contentious vote that Collins cast, however, was her decision to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, two years ago, after allegations of sexual assault were made against him by Christine Blasey Ford. Collins was the last undecided senator to announce her decision to confirm Kavanaugh. In the days leading up to her vote, her office in Washington, D.C., had been occupied by activists—many of whom had travelled overnight on buses from Maine—who sat under the decorative lobster traps and buoys and told Collins’s aides stories of having survived sexual assault. When Collins finally delivered her decision on the Senate floor, her enthusiasm for Kavanaugh seemed so unequivocal (she found Ford’s allegations unsubstantiated by the witnesses who testified in the Senate, and described Kavanaugh as “an exemplary public servant, judge, teacher, coach, husband, and father”) that it became difficult to believe that the delay had ever been a tortured consideration of the circumstances. Instead, it seemed to be a calculated and successful gamble by Collins to earn the full attention of the national media. In the days that followed, a coalition of progressive organizations in Maine raised more than three million dollars in so-called rage donations, which would be given to Collins’s still-unknown Democratic opponent after the Maine Democratic primary, in July, 2020. Whatever her national reputation had been before, Collins now came to be known on “Saturday Night Live” for a single quality: a theatrics of thoughtful consideration which covered her role in her Party’s refusal to challenge Trump. (“Oh, please, the last thing I wanted to do was make this about me,” Cecily Strong said, while playing Collins on “S.N.L.,” following the senator’s support for Kavanaugh. “That’s why I told everyone to tune in at 3 P.M., so you could watch me tell all my female supporters, ‘Psych!’ ”)

The jokes came out again during the impeachment hearings, when Collins, after expressing that she was “disappointed” that the Senate did not decide to call more witnesses, concluded that the House of Representatives had not met the burden of proof and voted to acquit the President. The Collins line that many people in Maine, from a high-school student to a farmer, recited back to me, with sarcasm and bitterness, did not come from a speech on the Senate floor but from a CBS interview after the hearings: “I believe that the President has learned from this case,” Collins had told Norah O’Donnell. “The President has been impeached. That’s a pretty big lesson.” She added, “I believe that he will be much more cautious in the future.”

“When she said, ‘He learned his lesson’? I just can’t. I just can’t,” a former Collins supporter named Sherri Sawyer told me last week, shaking her head. Sawyer, a retiree and registered Independent from the town of Hollis, was sitting by herself at a table in an open-air wedding tent, awaiting the arrival of Sara Gideon, the Democratic candidate for Collins’s seat. This is the first time since Collins was elected that Sawyer, a lifelong Mainer, would not be voting for her. “She did a lot for the shipyards,” she said, of Collins. “And the fishermen and stuff . . .” She paused and thought for a moment. “It just seems like recently she’s not as much interested in us as she is in being a Republican, and the Republicans have too much control right now. It’s got to be kind of evened off for things to work right.”

We were in the rural bedroom community of Dayton, in southern Maine. The sun was setting over a blissful view of reddening maples, white farmhouses, and newly mown slopes. An upside of a drought this year in northern New England was a warm, dry fall that made outdoor campaigning less miserable than it might have been. Under the large white tent, the tables had been placed at six-foot intervals and supplied with tiny bottles of scented sanitizer and packets of Kleenex. The coronavirus pandemic had limited the campaigning possibilities for both sides. With the exception of a bus tour through Maine’s sixteen counties, Collins has supplemented her official appearances with small, invitation-only events. Gideon had resumed a series of “Suppers with Sara” in July, but attendance was capped according to limitations on in-person gatherings, and instead of the traditional pot of baked beans voters were eating individually packaged wraps and sandwiches.

Demographically speaking, Maine is the oldest state in the country, and the memory of its voters runs long. Certain voters I spoke with at Gideon’s event expressed their disappointment in Collins by referencing specific historical instances of Maine’s political independence: the vote cast by Will Cohen, Collins’s former boss and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, to file articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon, in 1974; the Declaration of Conscience speech, by Margaret Chase Smith, another Republican from Maine and the nation’s first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, who, in 1950, spoke out against the anti-Communist purges of Joseph McCarthy. The sense was that, in confirming Kavanaugh and voting to acquit Trump, Collins had not met the moment in the way her predecessors had.

Sara Gideon was born in Rhode Island in 1971, the daughter of an Armenian-American nurse and a pediatrician who had immigrated to the United States from India. Her husband, Benjamin Gideon, is from Maine, and, as she has explained in her stump speeches, they moved there from New York, in 2004, to raise a family. (Collins has at times treated her opponent with a hint of nativism: “I’ve lived in Bangor for twenty-six years. My family’s been in Maine for generations,” she recently told Politico. “She’s been in Maine for about fifteen years and lives in Freeport.”) Gideon, who now has three children, was a full-time parent in 2009, when a local Democratic official called to urge her husband, an attorney, to run for the Freeport town council. Gideon, who had worked in advertising before having children, decided that she wanted to run instead. From the town council, she proceeded to the Maine House of Representatives, where she has been the speaker for her past two terms. When she announced her candidacy for the Democratic Senate primary, in 2019, she quickly became the establishment favorite, securing Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s near-immediate endorsement, eventually winning seventy-two per cent of the vote in the primary, and collecting a jackpot of national donations.

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