Polls Show Collins Could Lose Senate Seat To ‘Pragmatic’ Dem Challenger

April 21, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) speaks during a lunch meeting with Republican lawmakers in the Cabinet Room at the White House. (Al Drago/Bloomberg/Abaca Press/Pool)

In 2014, Susan Collins was looking at an easy victory in Maine. The veteran Senator was well-funded, well-liked, and faced little competition in her bid for re-election.

Her main challenger, Shenna Bellows, was a young progressive with no name recognition and limited experience in public office. “These are not easy times to be a congressional challenger,” wrote the Portland Press Herald in an August 2014 profile of Bellows’ campaign. 

Collins beat Bellows by a 36-point margin, gathering more than twice as many votes as her opponent after running unopposed in the Republican primary.

But six years later, she may have met her match.

In the 2020 race for her seat, Collins is lagging four points behind her Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, according to a March survey by Public Policy Polling.

That’s after Gideon outraised her by nearly $5 million in the first quarter of 2020, according to filings by the Federal Election Commission.

“Beating Susan Collins in 2014 was unthinkable for Democrats,” says Mark Brewer, a professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. “Beating her in 2020 is very much in the realm of possibility.”

Early in her tenure, Senator Collins gained a reputation as a maverick of the Republican party — a common sense lawmaker who steered clear of ideology and wasn’t afraid to vote outside party lines. That image helped her build traction among a large number of independent voters who aren’t party-affiliated. 

As Maine’s largest voting group, those “unenrolled” balloters will surely determine the outcome of the 2020 race, Brewer says. “They’re pragmatic voters, they’re not rigid ideologues or rigid partisans,” he says. “They tend to support a common sense pragmatic approach to problem solving and cooperation.”

But Collins’ credibility as a pragmatist has waned in recent years. Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, she has angered moderate voters by standing with the Republican party on polarizing issues.

For example, her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2019 will undoubtedly affect her chances of getting re-elected, according to Brewer.

“Ever since she cast the vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh that’s pretty much all you hear,” he says. “A lot of people thought that would fade as we get closer to the election — it hasn’t faded yet and my guess is it’s not going to.”

Her vote to acquit President Trump in the Senate’s impeachment trial also affected her approval ratings at home, Brewer says.

Now, after years of widespread popularity, Collins is experiencing some of her lowest approval ratings ever in the Senate, according to polling from Morning Consult.

Opponents like Speaker of Maine’s House of Representatives, Democrat Sara Gideon, have capitalized on Collins’ diminished appeal as a moderate. “Maine democrats, Sara Gideon, and other outside groups are trying very hard to link her to Donald Trump,” says Brewer.

Since the start of her campaign, Gideon has attacked Collins for confirming Kavanaugh and approving Congress’ 2018 tax reforms. “Getting things done for Mainers is what we’re elected to do, not falling in line behind the demands of someone else,” Gideon said in a 2019 YouTube ad.

Brewer says that despite being a progressive at heart, Gideon has positioned herself as a moderate alternative to Collins. “Gideon is running as a pragmatist — she’s running as someone who pledges to put Mainers first,” says Brewer. “She’s making the argument that Susan Collins is no longer that person.”

Brewer points out Gideon isn’t a household name in Maine, but she has gained visibility through effective advertising and frequent media appearances. “She’s been on the airwaves early and often, introducing herself to Mainers. The gap in name recognition between Gideon and Collins is much less than it was six months ago.”

Despite her recent decline in approval ratings, Collins could get a boost from her response to the coronavirus crisis, which has become a central issue in the 2020 election. 

In March, Collins helped negotiate the Paycheck Protection Plan, a $350 billion provision of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that allows small businesses to borrow money at low interest rates during the pandemic.

Earlier, Collins had urged Congress to put party differences aside to quickly pass the stimulus bill. “This is disgraceful,” Collins said in a speech addressed to President Trump. “We do not have time. Time is not on our side. Let’s get the job done for the American people,” she said.

However, her recent praising of Trump’s initial response to the coronavirus crisis, which has been criticized by Democrats in Maine’s local legislature, could play against her as well.

Miles Coleman, an editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a newsletter that predicts election outcomes, says that Collins has a difficult balancing act to play in the 2020 race.

In the past, Collins has benefited from “crossover voting” by Democrats willing to cast their ballots across party lines. But intense polarization of American politics since 2016 has made crossover voting increasingly rare, he said.

“I think in the Trump era, she’s trying to keep everyone happy and in Washington that’s very hard these days,” concluded Coleman.

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