Tiffany Bond and Max Linn Submitted photos

Maine’s much-hyped U.S. Senate race is expected to get a little smaller this week with the unexpected departure of independent candidate Max Linn.

Linn, a Bar Harbor businessman, plans to announce Tuesday that he’s dropping out of the race to unseat four-term U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican.

That would leave only two challengers for Collins, Democrat Sara Gideon of Freeport, who easily won a primary this month, and independent Lisa Savage of Solon.

But there is one more hopeful in the wings, Portland lawyer Tiffany Bond, who has asked a federal judge to waive the normal rules for collecting signatures from 4,000 voters so that she can also get on the ballot as an independent.

With Collins locked in one of the tightest and costliest races in the country, every nuance of the campaign could make the difference between victory and defeat.

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, left, and Democrat Sara Gideon.

The Cook Political Report rates the Maine Senate contest as one of six toss-ups in the nation in a year when Democrats appear to have the momentum, thanks in part to President Donald Trump’s iffy standing in the polls.

In presidential election years, Senate races tend to go the way voters choose their pick for the White House, a trend that would knock Collins out of office after 24 years if it holds true in Maine.

“As state polling stands now,” the Cook Report said Friday, “Republicans would be on pace to lose seats in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina” and may have a hard time holding on to seats in Iowa and Georgia.

With Linn in the race, a victory for Collins may have been at least a bit more difficult for her.

Why he is dropping out is unclear.

Just days ago, he was celebrating his success in claiming a spot on the Nov. 3 general election ballot after a Collins ally from Bath dropped her challenge to the petitions he submitted.

The only firm word about Linn’s change of heart came in an email from Matthew McDonald, his senior campaign adviser, who told reporters that Linn would announce his withdrawal from the race and endorse Collins in an 11 a.m. Zoom session Tuesday.

McDonald said Friday that he did not know why Linn decided to quit the contest. When the candidate called him late Thursday to let him know, McDonald said, he thought it was a joke.

Linn had posed a threat to Collins because he vociferously proclaimed his support for President Donald Trump, who is also on the ballot this fall, while Collins has steered clear of saying anything about whether she intends to vote for the president’s reelection or not.

Some Republicans feared Linn would snatch away right-wing votes from people that Collins might have won over — and who might not bother to make a second-place pick on their ranked-choice ballots.

Savage, a longtime Maine Green Independent leader, poses far less threat to Collins’ chances. Few of her voters would select Collins over Gideon, the state House speaker.

If Bond makes the ballot, it’s less clear whom she helps or hurts.

She has posted harsh comments about both Gideon and Collins online, though she’s hit the incumbent hardest.

At one point this spring, for example, Bond posted on Twitter, “I will encourage all of you to support any Maine businesses that do not feed people to lions to get Susan Collins out of office.”

Unlike Savage and Linn, Bond failed to deliver 4,000 notarized, verified voter signatures to the secretary of state by the end of June, the requirement for nonparty candidates to secure a spot on the ballot.

For several months beforehand, Bond argued the provision was not fair this year because the pandemic made it impossible to find people to sign or to have them sign safely. Even getting a notary was problematic, she said.

Ultimately, Bond turned in about 2,700 signatures, some fully vetted and some not.

Lisa Savage

A month ago, she filed suit in U.S. District Court to ask a judge to order Maine to follow the lead of Massachusetts, which lowered its required tally, and accept any candidate who got at least 2,000 signatures.

Savage and Linn, who got their signatures before the pandemic restrictions were imposed in March, supported Bond’s request. Two Democratic gubernatorial candidates who lost in the July 14 primary, Bre Kidman and Betsy Sweet, also backed her.

In his response to Bond’s suit, Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey urged the judge to reject her argument.

He said the 4,000-signature requirement is “a reasonable, nondiscriminatory statute designed to ensure that candidates demonstrate a sufficient modicum of support among Maine voters before being listed on the ballot.”

Frey pointed out that Bond had almost six months to collect the signatures “but fell far short.”

While nobody denied the shutdown and stay-at-home orders related to the coronavirus outbreak made things more difficult for candidates, Frey told the court that Bond “has not been sufficiently diligent and that other factors, including her own personal choices and strategies, had a greater effect on her lack of success.”

The court is likely to decide within weeks whether Bond can be on the ballot or not.

For now, she insists she is a candidate. The state says otherwise.

If she does make the ballot, her impact on the outcome of the race is uncertain.

Two years ago, Bond ran for the 2nd District’s congressional seat, one of two independents in a four-person race ultimately won by U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat.

It was the first ranked-choice voting race in a federal election in the United States.

Bond and the other independent in the race, Will Hoar of Southwest Harbor, finished third and fourth in the first round, both too far behind to have a chance to win. As a result, their votes were redistributed to Golden and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, the Republican incumbent who had a slim first-round lead.

Two-thirds of the independent vote in that race went to Golden, enough to put him over the top.

That’s one big reason to think her presence in the race could perhaps put a few more votes in Gideon’s final tally if a ranked-choice second round is needed and the two major party candidates are the finalists.

But nothing is for sure, from whether Bond will make the ballot to whether she would have any influence on who wins or loses.

The only certainty in the race is that Maine’s television stations are going to be airing commercials touting or trashing Collins virtually nonstop for weeks on end until the polls close.

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