Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins has raised record amounts of money from donors in Maine and across the country.

Sen. Susan Collins, shown in her Washington office in 2017, is “focused on the job that Mainers elected her to do,” her spokesman says, and hasn’t yet announced whether she’ll seek re-election a year from now. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Her campaign is airing television ads touting the Republican as an “independent,” bipartisan senator who delivers to constituents while giving Maine “enormous impact nationally.”

Yet there is one key thing New England’s only Republican member of Congress hasn’t done: officially announce she is running for re-election.

“Senator Collins remains focused on the job that Mainers elected her to do,” said Kevin Kelley, spokesman for Collins’ would-be campaign, in a prepared statement. As evidence, Kelley pointed to Collins’ recent authorship of a committee-approved bill to combat tick-borne diseases and her leadership on a transportation and housing budget bill.

“These are just the most recent examples of Senator Collins’ long record of bipartisan accomplishments, which is the backbone of her reputation as a hardworking, independent voice of reason in the U.S. Senate,” Kelley said.

One year from Sunday, voters nationwide will determine who should occupy the White House and which party – or parties – should control the chambers of Congress. With the Senate up for grabs, Maine is widely expected to have one of the most hotly contested (and expensive) races in the country.

Collins has filed preliminary paperwork – more a formality – with the Federal Election Commission and has already raised a record $8.6 million, fueled by out-of-state donations. Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, a potential Democratic challenger, has also benefitted from out-of-state donors.

But she has not officially declared her candidacy.

Some observers are puzzled by her lack of an announcement and the sliding timeframe for an official decision – which has shifted from “after Labor Day” to “most likely October” and is now into November.

It’s also fueled speculation (or, perhaps, hope among Democrats) that Collins could opt for an exit similar to that of former Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, whose surprise retirement sparked a game of political musical chairs eight months before the 2012 election. The national Democratic party machine is already backing Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon’s campaign and signaling that Maine will be a top Senate priority next year.

Political pundits aren’t betting on a similar bombshell from Collins, although they couch those predictions in caveats.

“One would not think she would be working so hard on fundraising and running her own ads – not just groups airing ads on her behalf – if she were not running. I expect that she will,” said Jim Melcher, a longtime political science professor at the University of Maine Farmington. “But remember, this will be a much more intensely contested race than her previous re-election bids, and that Olympia Snowe pulled out surprisingly and late in 2012 – so anything is possible.”

Brian Duff, an associate professor and chairman of University of New England’s political science program, also pointed to Collins’ recent television ads. But Duff wrote in an email that it’s “hard to think of a good reason to delay an announcement unless she is waiting for the right moment/gearing up for a new big fundraising push to go with it.”

“All that said, in the realm of true speculation, I can imagine that some part of Collins just wants to retire,” Duff said. “I believe being in the Senate is getting less and less satisfying to Collins as time goes by.”

EASY WINS IN PAST RACES

Collins cruised to victory in each of her three previous re-election campaigns, receiving more than 60 percent of the vote in 2014 despite a vigorous campaign waged by a young and well-respected Democratic challenger, Shenna Bellows.

But 2020 is likely to be much tougher.

Although Collins is still regarded in Washington as a moderate within an increasingly far-right caucus, she has lost support among Maine Democrats and some independents, according to several polls. Sensing her vulnerability, Democrats are already hammering her for supporting Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, opposing Obamacare and voting for Republicans’ controversial tax cut bill.

And then there’s the Trump factor, particularly as the House moves toward a potential vote to impeach the president that would, in turn, force a Senate trial on whether to remove him from office.

“She is soon to be forced to either pretend she believes the president’s behavior does not merit impeachment (going down in history as one of his enablers), or become a pariah for many in her party by voting to convict him,” Duff said.

Collins did not support Trump during the 2016 campaign and has yet to say whether she will support him next year. Speaking on the Maine Public radio program “Maine Calling” in early-September, Collins said “I support the president when I think he is right, I oppose him when I think he is wrong.”

But Trump’s presidency and candidacy will likely factor into congressional campaigns across the country. That’s true in Maine both in the case of Collins’ potential re-election campaign and in the race for the state’s 2nd Congressional District, where voters supported Trump in 2016 but elected Democratic Rep. Jared Golden in 2018.

As for her re-election plans, Collins told Maine Public that people are tired of the constant, seemingly 24/7 campaign season and that “announcing more than a year ahead what my decision will be is plenty of time.”

“I am laying the groundwork and certainly would run an aggressive campaign should I decide to run, and I expect I’ll keep to my timetable,” Collins said. “It’ll be this fall, most likely October that I’ll make it.”

Collins’ would-be opponents – most visibly Gideon and progressive advocate Betsy Sweet – and their Democratic allies are aggressively campaigning against the incumbent.

“Over the past four months since Sara has joined the race, we’ve seen incredible excitement from Mainers across the state who are ready for someone who will put them first in the Senate,” said Gideon campaign spokeswoman Maeve Coyle when asked for comment on Collins’ campaign.

PLENTY OF CASH ON HAND

A formidable campaigner throughout her career, Collins has already raised more money – roughly $8.6 million as of September 30 – than any candidate in Maine history more than a year before the election. While Gideon out-raised her $3.2 million to $2.1 million during the three-month reporting period, Collins was sitting on $7.1 million in available cash compared to $2.8 million for Gideon, who is her best-funded potential opponent at this point.

In addition, several outside organizations have already dropped or committed millions of dollars to television ads trying to knock down or prop up Collins among voters.

Those negative ads, combined with Gideon hitting the television airwaves, have prompted the Collins campaign to begin airing their own television ads even before she has announced whether she is running.

“As long as these groups continue to try and mislead voters, we will continue to remind Mainers of what they already know and that is that Senator Collins is a bipartisan, pragmatic, thoughtful legislator with a long record of bipartisan accomplishments,” said Kelley, her campaign spokesman.

Although Collins has already filed her candidacy paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, such filings are a non-binding preliminary step for candidates raising money.

Maine law also requires congressional candidates to obtain petition signatures from registered voters – in this case, 2,000 for party Senate candidate – in order to appear on the June primary ballots. But campaigns cannot begin gathering those signatures until Jan. 1.

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, didn’t seem overly concerned about when or if Maine’s senior senator will announce her plans for next year.

“Senator Collins does things on her own time and makes up her own mind,” Savage said. “I’ll think she’ll make that decision and announcement when she is ready … and in all of my time in politics, I haven’t seen anyone who can make Senator Collins do anything she doesn’t want to do or before she is ready.”

In 2012, Snowe caught both Republican and Democratic leaders by surprise when she decided she could be more effective working outside Congress than in the increasingly gridlocked, partisan atmosphere. Eight months later, independent and former Gov. Angus King won the election on a pledge to work with both parties without being beholden to either.

The partisan atmosphere in Washington has only worsened since then.

Asked whether Republicans are preparing for a similar scenario with Collins – however unlikely it might seem – Savage said the party “has been focusing on telling the story of Sara Gideon and what’s she done at the State House” as they portray her as too-left for most Mainers.

“We have to be prepared to fight that battle no matter what,” Savage said. “I see no reason to believe that fight would be anything other than successful, but we have to be ready for that.”

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