Sen. Susan Collins greets diners at Sarge’s Sports Pub & Grub in Rangeley during a mid-September campaign swing. She is seeking her fifth term.. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Editor’s Note: Second in a series on the candidates in Maine’s U.S. Senate election

If she was worried about running as an underdog for the first time in a quarter century, it didn’t show.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, campaigning last month in Rangeley, talked with small-business owners along Main Street like old friends, and some undoubtedly were.

“I love this, I really do. My bus tour is always my favorite part of the campaign,” Collins said during a break between events.

Her cheery demeanor belied the fact that she is in the toughest re-election fight of her political career, but the day also was illustrative of her public campaigning in 2020 in the middle of a pandemic – carefully choreographed visits with friendly audiences far removed from the chaos of Washington. The strategy is well suited for the 67-year-old Republican, who is running for re-election on experience and the power of incumbency.

“No matter where I am in the state, I can point to having made a difference,” she said, rattling off projects for which she has secured federal funding.

Still, her Senate experience and success in bringing federal funds home to Maine hasn’t tipped voter opinion in her favor. Public polls have shown Collins consistently behind her Democratic opponent, Sara Gideon, by an average of 5 percentage points. The highest level she’s received in any poll to date is 44 percent, low for any incumbent, let alone one who won with 68 percent of the vote in her last election. Two independents – Lisa Savage and Max Linn – and ranked-choice voting could also play important roles in Collins’ fate.

Her drop in popularity has coincided with the rise of President Trump and his hold over the Republican Party. Although Collins insists she has not changed, her fate is often tied to his. She has voted with Trump two-thirds of the time since 2016, according to an analysis of Senate records by FiveThirtyEight.

Four years ago, she declared Trump unfit for office but this summer Collins has avoided talking about him – even while visiting decidedly pro-Trump towns – betting instead that her pragmatism, not her allegiance to the president, is what will win over enough voters.

Collins talks aboard her bus during a mid-September tour. “I love this, I really do,” she says. “My bus tour is always my favorite part of the campaign.” She’s running for re-election on experience and the power of incumbency. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Not a single constituent has asked me that question, even when I’m speaking to predominantly Republican groups,” she said when asked about whether she supports Trump’s re-election. “What they want to know is: Can I work with whoever the president is, and I have a long record of being able to do that.”

Lawrence Knight of Phillips, who was having lunch at Moose Alley in Rangeley when Collins’ bus stopped last month, said he has always been a supporter of hers and he supports Trump as well. It doesn’t bother him if they aren’t always in lockstep.

“I think she’s truthful,” said Knight, 83, a retired Central Maine Power worker. “Sometimes she takes both sides, but she’s very truthful.”

Dan Shea, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville who has run a series of polls this year on the race, said there is no question Collins has done a lot for the state, “but she’s also on (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell’s team and Trump’s team,” which has dragged her down.

“She’s running on that experience and that ability, but that may not cut it in a highly charged partisan election,” Shea said.

J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter and website run by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, agreed.

“I think she probably feels like she’s done her best to walk that line and be as post-partisan as possible. Things just aren’t how they used to be,” said Coleman, adding that Sabato’s Crystal Ball late last month moved the Senate race from a tossup to leaning Democrat.

Indeed, many voters who supported or at least tolerated Collins in the past seem to have turned on her. Women, in particular, have soured, polling shows.

Linda Aaskov, 82, said she’s a lifelong Republican who’s always voted for Collins but won’t this year. The breaking point for her was Collins’ support of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whom Aaskov views as hostile to women’s rights.

“There are other things that have irked me about (Collins), the way she plays both sides,” she said. “I also don’t think she or anyone else should have a lifetime appointment.”

Sen. Susan Collins gets a virtual hug from Nancy Morton of Morton & Furbish Agency in Rangeley. In public polls, the incumbent trails Democratic challenger Sara Gideon by an average of 5 percentage points. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Still, others believe the current political climate is exactly why Collins is needed.

Mike Thibodeau, former Republican state Senate president from Winterport, knows a little about being frequently put in a position of having to defend or condemn the words and actions of an executive in his party – former Gov. Paul LePage, whose governing style was similar to Trump’s.

“I think politics in general, whether you are Republican or Democrat, has become so mean-spirited,” Thibodeau said. “I not only would like to see more folks like her, I think it would be an absolutely terrible thing to lose Senator Collins. The message can’t be that Americans are only interested in hyper-partisan politics.”

ROOTS IN THE COUNTY

Collins was born and raised in Caribou, a daughter of Aroostook County. Her family founded a retail lumber business in the mid-1800s that is now in its sixth generation. She reminds voters of these roots while campaigning, in part to contrast her with Gideon, a Rhode Island native who moved to Maine as an adult.

“I know Maine like the back of my hand,” she said last month. “I was raised in Caribou in the north, I live in Bangor now, and I think we bring very different understandings of Maine values and the ability to get things done. A rookie senator simply does not have the clout, the experience or the seniority to deliver for the people of Maine.”

Republican politics is in Collins’ blood. Both her parents served as mayor of her hometown and her father represented Aroostook County for four terms in the Maine Senate. Collins, too, found politics early, as president of the student council at Caribou High School. As a senior she got to visit Washington, D.C., and meet Margaret Chase Smith, the first female elected to the Senate, who would become a yardstick for all women in elective office.

Collins’ interest in government deepened at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. While still in college, she interned for then U.S. Rep. William Cohen, a Maine Republican known for his moderate streak. Cohen later served as Secretary of Defense under a Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

Collins went to work in Cohen’s office after graduating and stayed after he moved from the House to the Senate in 1978. She stayed 12 years in all before returning to Maine to take a job in Gov. John McKernan’s Cabinet as commissioner of the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, which led to an appointment by President George H.W. Bush as New England regional director of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Her first foray into electoral politics came in 1994, when she emerged victorious from an eight-way Republican primary for governor. She lost in the general election to independent Angus King, who is now her colleague in the Senate. Collins also lost to the Democrat in that race, Joe Brennan, but avenged that defeat two years later, beating Brennan in the 1996 U.S. Senate race to succeed her mentor, Cohen.

Collins visits with constituents at Rangeley Lakes Builders Supply last month. “No matter where I am in the state, I can point to having made a difference,” says Collins, rattling off projects for which she has secured federal funding. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

She won re-election in 2002, 2008 and 2014 – her margin of victory growing each time.

For much of Collins’ first three terms, she was often linked to Maine’s other senator, Olympia Snowe. Both were assertively bipartisan, known for crossing the aisle. In 2012, though, Snowe abruptly decided not to seek another term, citing increased polarization. This was pre-Trump but just as the tea party had begun to infuse the Republican Party.

With that decision, Collins became her state’s senior senator.

For the last seven years, she has been named the Senate’s most bipartisan senator by the Lugar Center, a Washington organization named after former Sen. Richard Lugar. Collins speaks often of her ability to work with Democrats (she collaborates often with California’s Dianne Feinstein and New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen, among others), even if it happens less and less.

Collins is universally respected in Congress. She doesn’t appear regularly on Fox News like some of her Republican cohorts but is savvy about her image with media in Maine.

Sen. Susan Collins speaks with employees at Irving Forest Products in Dixfield last month. Her drop in popularity since her last election has coincided with the rise of President Trump and his hold on the Republican Party. She insists she hasn’t changed, but her fate is often tied to his. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“People are very practical. They want an end to the gridlock and polarization and lack of civility,” she said. “They want problems solved, and I pride myself on being a good problem solver, regardless of who the president is.”

But the Senate of 2020 is not like the Senate in 1997, when she was a freshman. She need only look around to see that she’s the only Republican member of Congress left in New England.

Jim Good, a retired attorney who lives in Yarmouth, grew up in a Republican family and has voted for Collins every time she’s been on the ballot. Not this year.

“From what I see, since Trump has been elected, she’s tried to walk a political line in the middle of what I see as a national crisis,” Good said, referring to Trump’s chaotic presidency.

After Collins declared Trump unfit in 2016, Good said he contacted her office to thank her for speaking up. He said he thought more elected Republicans might do the same. That didn’t happen, though, and he said Collins has missed opportunities to stand against him. He recalled Margaret Chase Smith delivering her famous “Declaration of Conscience” speech on the Senate floor in 1950 against her Republican colleague Joe McCarthy and being ostracized for it.

A friendly crowd waits to greet Susan Collins as she campaigns on Main Street in Rangeley on Sept. 18. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“But she was right, and she made a difference,” he said. As for Collins? “I don’t think I can rely on her when the going gets tough.”

FAVORABILITY RATINGS

By 2015, Collins was riding high.

She had cast her 6,000th consecutive roll call vote, joining only two other senators in history who accomplished the feat. In December, she was ranked as the country’s second most popular senator, behind only Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, with a favorability rating of 78 percent, according to Morning Consult, a respected Washington, D.C., firm that regularly surveys the popularity of members of Congress.

It was before her crucial vote to confirm Kavanaugh, before Cecily Strong began portraying her (unfavorably) on “Saturday Night Live” and, most notably, before Donald Trump’s improbable ascendency to the White House.

Much has changed.

This year, Collins’ favorability in the same Morning Consult poll has plummeted. In January, she was ranked as the least popular senator in the U.S. A month later, she voted to acquit President Trump on impeachment charges, surprising and disappointing some who thought the longtime moderate might take a stand against her party’s president.

Prior to the 2016 election, Collins very publicly warned in an op-ed published in The Washington Post that she thought Trump was not fit for office and would not support him. This year, she has not said whether she supports him or not, something opponents seize on regularly.

One of the biggest questions surrounding Collins in 2020 has been: Has the senator changed? Or have politics changed?

“I think she has been caught up in what scholars are calling affect partisanship or negative partisanship,” explained Shea, the Colby College professor of government. “That’s when we don’t simply disagree with the other side, but see the other side as a threat to the nation. That’s happening on both sides. There is less tolerance for those who shift between parties. Less room for the moderates.”

Collins has long played up her role as a pragmatic dealmaker in the Senate, even as her votes have become more party-aligned. A database of Senate votes compiled by ProPublica shows that Collins is far less likely to vote against the Republican majority than before she won her last race. In the 113th session of Congress (2013-14), Collins cast 252 votes against the Republican majority – 38 percent of all her votes. In the current Congress, she has cast 72 votes against the Republican majority, just 12 percent of all votes.

Sen. Susan Collins visits the Irving Forest Products in Dixfield while campaigning Sept. 18. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I think the party has shifted and so has she,” Shea said.

Another analysis, though, by FiveThirtyEight, shows Collins has voted with Trump 67.5 percent of the time in the last four years, the lowest score of any Republican in Congress.

One of the biggest votes, of course, was to confirm Kavanaugh, whose confirmation hearing was upended by allegations of sexual abuse from his college days.

“I stand by my Kavanaugh vote because it was the right thing to do,” Collins said last month when asked if her drop in support, particularly among women, was tied to that decision. “I felt so strongly that our country was on the verge of casting overboard such fundamental principles as fairness, due process, the presumption of innocence, and I had to stand tall and strong against that.

“I knew very well, based on the numerous death threats that I received and my staff received at the time, and conversations I’d had with constituents that that vote was going to hurt me politically, but there’s no sense in being in the Senate if you’re not willing to stand up and do what is right during those difficult times.”

Sen. Susan Collins speaks with members of the press at Irving Forest Products in Dixfield while campaigning Sept. 18. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Many people already had their mind made up after the Kavanaugh vote, but Collins’ vote to acquit Trump during impeachment may have sealed the deal.

Since the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Collins again has found herself in a tough spot. She initially said she believed that the person elected president in November should get to decide but later clarified that she would vote no on any nominee before the election.

Once again, her fate may be tied to Trump, although supporters said that’s not fair.

“I always want to be judged on my own behavior and not on someone else’s and I’m sure that’s true of Senator Collins,” said Thibodeau, the former state Senate leader. “It’s tough enough to answer your own votes, you don’t want to have to answer for someone else. I’m proud of the way our senator conducts herself in D.C. She is the gold standard.”

‘FAIR TO BOTH SIDES’

Collins interacts with constituents in Rangeley in September. The senator has made visiting small businesses – and touting the Paycheck Protection Program that she co-authored – a major part of her re-election campaign. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Collins has always been known for working long hours, never missing votes and returning to Maine often to meet with constituents. She doesn’t have any children and for many years was single.

In 2012, shortly before turning 60, Collins married Tom Daffron, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist she first met in the 1970s, when he was Cohen’s chief of staff. Daffron later was chief of staff to U.S. Sen Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who has cultivated the same sort of moderate profile as Collins.

When they’re not in Washington, Collins and Daffron live in Bangor – on the same street as Stephen King, who is not Collins’ biggest fan – and also own a camp on Cold Stream Pond, a little less than an hour north of Bangor.

Collins said they haven’t had many opportunities to spend time there this year.

She has held numerous campaign events and official Senate office events throughout the summer, but they have been heavy on visits to businesses and small towns where supporters are prevalent. She has not held many open events or town halls, something her critics have noted, although the pandemic has changed campaigning for every candidate.

Sen. Susan Collins meets with community leaders Friday at the Hains Building on Main Street in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Roy and Ruth Geurcio of Rangeley didn’t know Collins was going to be in their town last month, but when they saw her campaign bus parked at Moose Alley, they stopped to say hello.

“We like her. She’s fair and she sticks up for the right things that we believe in,” said Roy.

“Like our police and our country,” Ruth joined in.

“And law and order and due process,” Roy continued. “She stuck up for Judge Kavanaugh when people were throwing him to the wolves.”

The Geurcios are Trump supporters as well but aren’t bothered that Collins hasn’t said whether she supports his re-election.

David Greene, president of Colby College, left center, speaks Friday with Sen. Susan Collins, center, and Sen. Tim Scott, right center, at the Hains Building on Main Street in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“We understand that this is a state that’s got a lot of Democrats as well, so we really love the fact that she is fair to both sides,” Ruth said. “I think the crazy lefties won’t like her but she’s a middle-of-the-road kind of person. She’s not a crazy radical, she can represent everybody.”

Cheryl Wentworth, who co-owns the IGA in Rangeley, said she still likes Collins’ chances, even if she trails in the polls.

“I think small business needs Susan Collins or we’re not going to fare very well,” Wentworth said.

Collins has made visiting small businesses – and touting the Paycheck Protection Program that she co-authored – a major part of her campaign.

Although those who spoke in Rangeley said they didn’t need her to offer full-throated support of Trump, other Republicans feel differently. Along a stretch of Route 108 in West Peru, not far from Dixfield, where Collins visited the Irving Forest Products Sawmill last month, there were numerous lawn signs promoting the GOP ticket of Trump, Republican congressional candidate Dale Crafts and Collins – only Collins’ name was covered over with duct tape.

Protesters stand outside the Hathaway Creative Center during a visit from Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Tim Scott of South Carolina in Waterville on Friday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Whether there are a lot of Republicans who are so upset with Collins they won’t vote for her remains to be seen, but she needs the full support of the base.

“As a longtime incumbent, it’s not good if you’re stuck at 42 (percent),” said Coleman, referring to Collins’ polling average.

Mainers probably expected Collins to be more against Trump after her 2016 op-ed. But she’s still a Republican and much of what she’s voted for has been Republican policy.

Collins is aware of her legacy. Recently on the campaign trail, she has repeated that she is in line to become chairwoman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. A senator from Maine hasn’t done that since Frederick Hale in 1932. Not Margaret Chase Smith. Not Bill Cohen. Not Olympia Snowe.

Collins could cement her status as one of the most influential members of Congress the state has seen or could possibly end her career with a loss.

“I wouldn’t bet against her,” said Thibodeau. “She’s a tough lady, despite what people might think.”

Next in the series: Lisa Savage

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