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OPINION

Susan Collins struggles in Trumpian times

The president and the national GOP are albatrosses for a senator once viewed as her own person.

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photos

You can’t turn on a TV in Maine without seeing two familiar faces derided.

Republican Senator Susan Collins has gone from a Maine-centered senator to a Washington insider who is in the satchel of special interests, proclaims one set of TV messages.

Democratic challenger Sara Gideon is a sneaky crypto-radical who will tax Maine and America back to the Stone Age, insinuates another.

Those independent-expenditure wars were raging even before Tuesday, when Gideon, the Democratic speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, cruised to an easy victory for her party’s US Senate nomination.

“People are awfully sick of the negativity,” said one conservative Downeast merchant who favors Collins because she has helped his community.

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Collins clearly wants to localize the race. Her own ads emphasize the way she’s used her clout in Washington to help this Maine community or that, or this family or that firm with its needs. That’s worked for her in the past, and some think it will bring her to victory again.

“I know a lot of people who are not voting for Donald Trump but are voting for Susan Collins,” said Kevin Raye, the former Republican president of the Maine Senate.

Yet these days, most politics — even most Maine politics — are no longer local. Witness what just happened with the influential LGBTQ advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign. Long a Collins backer, the organization endorsed Gideon this week.

Its choice of Gideon over Collins came in large part because Collins would vote for Mitch McConnell (or another Republican) for Senate majority leader — and thus help enable the conservative party.

“We are fighting for our lives, and the only way to advance LGBTQ equality through the Senate is to install a new pro-equality majority leader and replace Mitch McConnell,” HRC president Alphonso David explained.

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That helps demonstrate how the national political polarization has caught up with Collins. (The League of Conservation Voters, which has backed Collins in the past, has also switched, as has Planned Parenthood, which honored Collins as recently as 2017.)

For much of her 23-plus years as a senator, Collins was able to float almost above partisan politics, positioning herself as a Republican moderate who looked out for Maine first — and garnering between 58 and 68 percent of the vote.

But those days and that image are gone. According to a poll released this month by Public Policy Polling, a liberal survey firm, more Maine voters (46 percent) consider Collins a partisan voice for Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell than see her as an independent voice for Maine (42 percent).

With the embattled Republican president and his party sinking nationally, that creates an exceedingly difficult dynamic for Collins. Massachusetts saw a similar effect in 1996, when moderate, well-liked Republican governor Bill Weld challenged then-US Senator John Kerry.

“One of the headwinds I faced was that if I won, I would be helping to cement a Republican majority in the Senate that would be considerably more conservative than I was on many issues, such as abortion, gay and lesbian rights, environmental issues, and immigration,” Weld recalled via e-mail.

That’s not Collins’s only problem, of course. Talk to Mainers about her and several things come up again and again. Her support for Brett Kavanaugh, who as a US Supreme Court justice has voted to restrict abortion access, despite her assurance that he saw Roe v. Wade as settled law. Her vote for the 2017 Republican tax cut package, which was skewed to upper earners and swung an ax at the Affordable Care Act. Her assertion that Trump had learned from impeachment.

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Collins knows she’s in trouble against Gideon, who in the last quarter outraised her more than two to one. She has countered Gideon’s call for five debates with a call for one in each of Maine’s 16 counties.

It’s too soon to count an experienced campaigner out. Still, it’s clear Collins’s careful political calibration hasn’t met the challenge of the moment. In a common-sense state in these Trumpian times, candor, courage, and conviction are what’s needed to survive.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.