Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine is narrowly trailing her Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, the incumbent’s reelection bid hindered by diminished popularity among moderate Democrats and independent voters who’ve soured on her since President Trump’s election, according to a new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll of likely Maine voters.
They favor Gideon, the speaker of Maine’s House of Representatives, over Collins, 46 percent to 41 percent, according to the survey of 500 likely voters, the bulk of which was conducted before the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was announced Friday.
Interviews with several respondents suggest the Senate battle over replacing Ginsburg will complicate Collins’s efforts to woo moderate voters while keeping stalwart Republicans behind her as she seeks to close the gap with Gideon, whose 5-point lead is within the poll’s margin of error.
Few voters interviewed were impressed with Collins’s announcement that she thinks the winner of the Nov. 3 election should make the nomination.
“It’s great, but I don’t trust that she will follow through,” said Lucy Bisson of Lewiston, a registered Republican and self-described “moderate” who has backed Collins in all her previous Senate races but plans to vote for Gideon in November. “At this point, I don’t trust her to follow through on what she says."
Collins’s stance on the Supreme Court also irked Brenda Piawlock, a Trump supporter in Mason Township who plans to vote for Collins. “I’m not impressed at all. I think she should vote, and they should put one in there. Donald Trump is our president right now, and he has every right to do it — and she better back him on it,” said the 62-year-old cranberry farmer.
The skeptical reactions to Collins’s position on the vacancy underscore the challenge the four-term incumbent has faced throughout the race: The polarizing Trump era has battered her image as an independent-minded moderate in the eyes of voters from both sides of the aisle.
“For me, it’s too little too late," said Janet Jamison, a Democrat from South Paris. She read Collins’s statement on the court vacancy as the senator “hedging her bets” and trying to win back women who are mad after she supported the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh — a vote Jamison said left her “distraught."
Even some Republicans who are backing Collins are doing so unenthusiastically, viewing her as the least bad alternative.
William Stanton, 56, a retired postal worker and Trump supporter, said he plans to vote for Collins because she’s the Republican candidate, even though he doesn’t really like her.
“She doesn’t know what side of the fence she wants to be on,” said the Oakland resident.
Of course, some voters continue to see Collins in a positive light.
“You’ll never make everyone happy,” but Collins by and large has done a good job, said Zach Thompson, 34, of Mercer.
The registered Republican and Trump supporter, who owns his own trucking business, saw firsthand Collins’s ability to fix issues that threatened his industry. She helped solve a problem — trucks with heavy loads, Thompson said, couldn’t use Interstate 95 north of Augusta, forcing them to use less safe secondary roads.
“She took the reins on it and was able to figure things out,” he said.
The survey shows that Collins faces headwinds in overcoming the polling gap, with just 45 percent of voters saying they have a favorable view of the 67-year-old Republican, who was once one of the most popular senators in the country and cruised to victory six years ago with nearly 70 percent of the vote.
Forty-five percent view Collins unfavorably, the poll found.
Gideon, 48, is viewed favorably by nearly 56 percent of voters, while 37 percent have an unfavorable view.
Gideon’s narrow polling lead could be even stronger when Maine’s ranked-choice voting system is taken into account. Two independent candidates will be on the Nov. 3 ballot, and Maine’s system allows voters to rank the candidates from first to last on their ballots.
If one of the four Senate candidates gets more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she is the winner. But if no one clears that threshold, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those voters are reallocated based on their second-choice candidate. The process continues until a candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote.
Among the very small sample of respondents not planning to pick one of the major-party contenders as their top choice, Gideon is much more popular than Collins as a second choice.
If this were a traditional race where voters chose one candidate, “this would be a closer fight,” with more voters undecided, said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. But Collins’s unfavorable rating with voters “is putting a ceiling on her ability to grow to 50 percent through the second round” of voting, he said.
Among her challenges, Collins is struggling with women. A longtime supporter of abortion rights, she is attracting support from 33 percent of the women polled, compared to 54 percent for Gideon. Collins leads among men, 49 percent to 38 percent, the survey found.
That gender gap echoes the backlash against Collins, sparked when she delivered in 2018 a key vote for Kavanaugh, a conservative jurist, who is viewed as being opposed to abortion rights and was accused of sexual assault during his confirmation process, a claim he vociferously denied.
Gideon also is beating Collins by double digits among self-described moderate voters, 52 percent to 37 percent.
"That’s where the race is going to be decided,” Paleologos said.
For decades, Collins successfully tapped into Maine’s brand of political moderation, which helped her win over 39 percent of voters who identified as Democrats and 72 percent of those who described themselves as moderate in her 2014 landslide, according to exit polls.
But the Trump era has hardened Maine politically, and Collins has struggled to rebuild her coalition. She has not led a poll over Gideon all year. The Suffolk/Globe poll is the third survey this month to show Collins trailing Gideon in the final weeks of the race and with less than 50 percent of the electorate viewing the incumbent favorably.
A New York Times/Siena poll of 663 likely voters showed Gideon ahead by 5 points, while a Quinnipiac poll of 1,183 likely voters found Gideon leading Collins 54 percent to 42 percent, a 12-point lead that was comfortably outside of the poll’s margin of error.
In interviews, voters critical of Collins named her support for Kavanaugh as a major example of why they oppose her but also described it as part of a larger set of points that show she is no longer the centrist she claims to be.
Collins’s vote to acquit Trump in the Senate impeachment trial, and her comment that the president learned “a pretty big lesson” through the process, was cited as another black mark.
“She pretends that she’s bipartisan. She was years and years and years ago, but it’s not like that anymore,” said Elizabeth Davis, 37, an unenrolled voter from Sidney.
Maine voters have turned even more strongly against Trump himself. The survey found former vice president Joe Biden, the Democratic standard-bearer, is leading Trump, 51 percent to 39 percent, in the presidential race.
Hillary Clinton won Maine by less than 3 percentage points in 2016.
Biden is even effectively tied with Trump in Maine’s vast, rural Second Congressional District, where Trump prevailed in 2016, earning him one of Maine’s four electoral votes. (Maine allocates one electoral vote for each of its two congressional districts, plus two votes for the statewide winner.)
A majority of respondents rated President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as “poor,” while 35 percent said Trump had done an “excellent” or “good” job with the crisis.
The poll was conducted by live callers to cellphone and landlines from Thursday through Sunday and had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4.4 percentage points.
James Pindell of the Globe staff contributed to this story.