AN UNORGANIZED TERRITORY NEAR MILLINOCKET, MAINE
It’s like a once affectionate marriage that’s coming apart in a more stressful stage of life: Mainers are contemplating a breakup with Susan Collins, who has served the Pine Tree State as US senator since 1997.
Just six years ago, Collins was such a bipartisan favorite that she corralled nearly 70 percent of the vote in a state where Republican registrants trail Democrats by 27.5 percent to 36 percent. Obviously Collins won by attracting considerable support from Democratic and independent voters.
But the broad agreement that a vote for Collins is a good political investment for Maine and moderation has been yet another casualty of the hyperpolarized politics of the Trump era. For many Mainers, too much is now at stake to continue supporting a senator who, though occasionally iconoclastic, usually sides with Trump and fellow Republicans when it really matters.
“She is a good lady, but her time is up,” said Steve Keane, a retired high school teacher and a Democrat from Bethel who has voted for Collins repeatedly.
The breakup issues for him? Collins’s vote for Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court and against impeaching President Trump.
“I’ve tried to find a reason to stick with her, but I can’t,” said Kathy, a retired nurse from the Augusta area and longtime independent who has now switched to Democrat.
Asked their reasons for abandoning the incumbent, women frequently cited Kavanaugh, who despite Collins’s assurance to the contrary, is widely seen as a high-court threat to abortion rights.
“She said she was going to protect abortion rights, but I don’t think she did,” said Cynthia, a retired librarian and independent from Millinocket. But for that, she would probably be backing Collins again.
Retired contractor Charlie Early of Perry, an erstwhile Collins voter and a former Republican turned independent, had a reason besides Collins’s support for Kavanaugh: Her vote to confirm William Barr, whose performance as attorney general he dislikes.
Other times, it’s not a specific vote or issue, but the simple fact that Collins is a Republican whose reelection would help enable GOP control of the Senate.
“I’ll find it difficult to vote against her,” said Democrat Gary Pulkkinen, 68, of Millinocket, a former tech installation worker and onetime Collins supporter. “But we need more Democrats in the Senate.”
To be sure, Collins still has her inter-party fans. Marc, 52, a hospitality industry worker and Democrat from Chelsea, near Augusta, says he’s sticking with Collins because she helped him get insulin when he didn’t have insurance. And because Democrat Sara Gideon, Collins’s principal opponent, “is not from here.” Gideon was raised in Rhode Island and moved to Maine in 2004.
Born in Caribou, far up in Aroostook County, Collins is stronger in northern Maine. The attention she has paid to that region has won her the continued backing of Rick LeVasseur, who with his wife, Debbie, runs 5 Lakes Lodge in one of Maine’s unorganized territories, near Millinocket. LeVasseur, an independent who leans Republican, is voting for Joe Biden out of disgust with Trump, but sticking with Collins because she “has done a lot for Northern Maine.”
Others are torn, pushed one way by Collins’s votes they disagree with, pulled another by her seniority and power. Such is the case with Sonja Dana, a Democrat and a resident of Indian Township, a Passamaquoddy reservation near Calais, who says she is “at a standstill” on the Senate race. Although Dana, 75, is bothered by Collins’s vote for Kavanaugh and the 2017 tax cuts “that benefit the rich,” the senator “has so much seniority, and if she stays in, that will benefit Maine,” she says.
The latter consideration is the frame the Collins camp hopes will govern the race. The incumbent is emphasizing the things she has done for this community or that or for this family or that, or the good that legislation like the Paycheck Protection Plan that she coauthored has done for the state.
And striving to remove herself from the connect-the-dots national political constellation. How much so? A Republican who made national headlines in 2016 by declaring she wouldn’t vote for Trump, Collins won’t say, this time around, whether she will cast her ballot for him. Why not? No doubt because Trump, though unpopular overall in Maine, maintains strong support among Republicans.
Contrariwise, Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, is stressing the role Collins has played in the national Republican universe. The 2017 GOP tax cut Collins backed has created deficits that now have Trump and congressional Republicans talking about cutting programs like Medicare and Social Security, she notes. And by eliminating the penalty for individuals who don’t purchase health insurance, the legislation also opened the door for the latest anti-Obamacare lawsuit, one the Trump administration has joined, to kill the Affordable Care Act.
Those were the themes the candidates hit in the first debate Friday night. Gideon did a better job underscoring her themes than Collins did her own.
That said, if my attempts to find voters who had watched it are any indication, the debate wasn’t widely viewed. In interviewing stops in Machias, Ellsworth, Bucksport, and Belfast, I found exactly three, two of whom offered an opinion.
Pam Priest of Lamoine, who has put in 40 years as a custodial worker, came away feeling good about Collins. A Republican, Priest is undecided on Trump, but thinks Collins “is for the Maine people.”
Retired software engineer Ken Hyams of Belfast, a Democrat, thought Collins, Gideon, and independent progressive candidate Lisa Savage all acquitted themselves reasonably well. In the past, Hyams has supported Collins because he considered her a moderating influence on the GOP.
“But I feel like that influence is gone,” he said, “so I will vote for Gideon.”
And that, ultimately, speaks to the Maine sense that may well spell defeat for the veteran Republican senator. In today’s politics, it doesn’t suffice to be the cautious, careful, occasional ranks-breaking Susan Collins of old — and the long-time incumbent can’t or won’t change to meet the current moment.