There are plenty of takeaways from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ decisive victory over challenger Sara Gideon in last week’s election – the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the polling and the power of incumbency, to name a couple.

But of all the echoes from the hotly contested race, which Collins won by a surprising 51-42 percent margin, one rings particularly discordant: Unlike Collins, who grew up in the heart of Maine potato country, Gideon was “from away.”

Yes, the vanquished Democratic challenger is in fact a legal resident of Freeport. And yes, it’s been 16 years since she moved here from out of state.

But take it from someone who’s been here going on 44 years, or two-thirds of my entire life: If you weren’t born in Maine, to some, you’ll never be a true Mainer. And even if you were born here from parents who weren’t, as the saying goes, “just because the cat has kittens in the oven don’t make ’em biscuits.”

We heard it in the endless pro-Collins TV ads, in the debates, and in the campaign stump speeches, particularly in rural Maine: Gideon, while speaker of the Maine House, is, was and always will be, wink-wink, “from Rhode Island.”

Members of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram editorial board heard it directly from Collins when she met with us last month. We asked why she chose that line of attack against her challenger at a time when Maine needs all the new residents it can get.

“I have not attacked her for being from Rhode Island,” Collins replied. “I have pointed out that she is not a native Mainer because I think my in-depth knowledge of the state of Maine is obviously, naturally superior to someone who just moved here 15 or 16 years ago.”

The underlying implication: With her six-generation lineage firmly rooted in the northern Maine city of Caribou, Collins could not be more one of us. By comparison, Gideon’s 16 years here is little more than an extended visit.

Which raises a perennial question: Why is the phrase “from away” so exclusively linked to Maine? And what does it say about the people who readily buy into its insinuation that true Mainers are defined not by their love of or service to the state, but simply by where they were – or were not – born?

“It’s mostly harmless. It’s mostly kind of cute,” Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said in a phone interview on Friday. “But there are times where it becomes a cudgel.”

Melcher, a Wisconsin native who’s been here for 21 years, published an article 15 years ago titled: “Away Game: Implications of Being ‘From Away’ in Maine Politics.” Focusing on races for the state Legislature, he found that birthplace doesn’t appear to be much of a factor in local politics, where voters can personally meet a candidate and take their own measure of the person.

But the higher one moves up the ballot, the more the issue emerges, particularly in cases where a voter already doesn’t like a candidate and the “from away” label lends final confirmation to that bias. Melcher calls it the “cherry-on-the-top” factor, that last straw that tips a vote away from the relative newcomer and toward the “County girl,” as those in Aroostook County might refer to favorite daughter Collins.

But is it right?

That depends.

Melcher sees nothing wrong with people being proud that they were born in Maine, “but I think it can be an obstacle if it becomes, ‘I’m better than you because of it.’”

The born-here-versus-from-away factor contributes mightily to Maine’s internal divides – most notably, our economically driven rural-urban rivalry, as well as the north-south political demarcation separating the “two Maines.”

Consider the numbers: According to 2018 U.S. census data, 38 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million people were born out of state. But a 2019 analysis by the website Governing shows that among those over the age of 25, just over 70 percent in Collins’ birthplace of Aroostook County were born in Maine, compared to only 51 percent in Cumberland County, where Gideon lives.

Thus, while those in southern Maine use the “from away” label to describe, say, a summer tourist here for a week or two, northern Mainers apply it to anyone who cannot lay claim to a Maine birthright going back at least two or three generations.

At the core of all this lies an enviable brand that sets Maine apart. Its natural beauty, independent spirit and common-sense ethos all make this state attractive not just to those born here, but those who chose at some point to pull up stakes and move here.

Back when he first ran for governor in 1994, Sen. Angus King, a Virginia native, routinely deflected criticism of his away-ness with the quip, “I wanted to be born in Maine, but I felt I should be close to my mother at that time. It was a big day for her.”

Now, a quarter-century later, times have changed. Intended or not, Collins and her allies sent a clear signal to the electorate with their anti-Gideon messaging: I am one of you. I can be trusted. My opponent is from away. Beware.

Or, as Collins put it in a fiery critique of Gideon during an early-October interview with Politico, “I grew up in Caribou, I’ve lived in Bangor for 26 years. My family’s been in Maine for generations. She’s been in Maine for about 15 years and lives in Freeport. That’s a big difference in our knowledge of the state.”

Maybe so. But while Collins will steadfastly deny that she was sounding a dog whistle – not only is Gideon a transplant, but she lives in Freeport – that’s unquestionably what a significant number of Mainers heard.

The problem with such a snap judgment, from Melcher’s perspective, is how seamlessly it plays into the myriad fractures already splitting us apart. Good-natured ribbing is one thing; conflating birthplace with authenticity and character becomes quite another.

“I think that it’s divisive,” Melcher said. “I think it suggests that some people aren’t equal, that some people aren’t as good as other people. And frankly, we have too much of that, in my opinion, in the country.”

He’s right. What’s important to Maine’s future at this challenging moment isn’t who’s from away and who isn’t.

It’s that all of us, from the “County girl” to the “newcomer” from Freeport, choose to make this place our home.

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