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Once considered a strong favorite in Maine, Collins faces toughest challenge

A Susan Collins sign was hung in a window of the  Sanford, Maine, GOP headquarters. But support for the incumbent is far from assured.
A Susan Collins sign was hung in a window of the Sanford, Maine, GOP headquarters. But support for the incumbent is far from assured.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Here in the hometown of former senator Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican who mirrored the state’s taste for moderation in its politics, the warning signs are hard to miss for Senator Susan Collins.

Like Smith, Collins developed a reputation as a bipartisan Republican, someone who would reach across the aisle. Like Smith‚ who served as senator from 1949 to 1973, Collins has roots in Maine that run deep and wide. But many voters in this politically iconoclastic state feel Collins has strayed from the straight talk they want at a time they need it most.

“She lost me,” said Lyla Ware, a longtime Collins supporter, as she sat in her Jeep at George’s Banana Stand, a grocery store in this small town 40 miles north of Augusta. “I will definitely vote, and I will support … oh, jeepers,” said Ware, momentarily forgetting the name of Collins’s opponent.

“Sara Gideon!” she exclaimed.

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Gideon, a Democratic legislator who serves as speaker of the Maine House, does not enjoy the name recognition of the four-term incumbent. But broad disapproval of President Trump, whom Collins voted to acquit of impeachment charges, coupled with her pivotal confirmation vote in 2018 for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, have turned many once-solid supporters against her.

“She used to stand up for herself, even when the popular opinion in her party wasn’t hers," said Andrea Berry, a longtime Collins voter from Alfred who plans to vote for Gideon. “But now she just cowers.”

After Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Sept. 18, Collins attempted to show she still is willing to buck party lines. First, she said that the Senate should not vote on a nominee before the election, a vote which Trump and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell have pledged will occur. Then, Collins went a step further and said she would vote against the nominee if the decision came before Election Day.

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Many polls have shown Collins trailing Gideon by only four or five points, so her political obituary cannot be written yet. But the most expensive race in Maine’s history clearly has her in an unfamiliar role as an underdog, something that would have seemed far-fetched when she won in a landslide six years ago.

With Collins perceived as vulnerable, Gideon has raised $24 million, compared with $17 million for Collins. The urgency among Maine Democrats to win this race, and help win back the Senate in the process, is also playing an enormous role in rallying voter enthusiasm.

“We’re in a different political environment with an utter destruction of the norms and dismantling of the democracy," said Chris Moore, a music teacher in Yarmouth, who said that for the first time he will not vote for Collins. “The mutual respect across the aisle is gone.”

Moore emphasized that the intense attention on court appointments has underlined why a Senate Democratic majority is more important than any single individual in office.

Gideon, whose political persona seems more centrist than activist, will be the beneficiary as she campaigns on issues such as expanding Medicare with an option for private insurance, climate change, and protecting reproductive rights for women.

Eleanor Leary of Dover-Foxcroft was thrilled to see a new face in the Senate race.

“Voting sometimes up here can be a familial thing. Generation after generation votes the same way for the same person, and I’m not even sure they even know the facts," said Leary, who lives in Dover-Foxcroft, the seat of sprawling, Trump-friendly Piscataquis County.

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"I’m hopeful Maine can change that this year, even if it’s not exactly happening here,” she said as a pickup truck carrying a billowing Trump flag rumbled into the parking lot of Will’s Pick and Save.

Still, there is a sense that the race is less about Gideon than it is about Collins and Trump.

One Gideon voter from Cornville mistakenly told the Globe she was voting for Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential candidate, before quickly correcting herself. A Collins voter in Lewiston repeatedly substituted the name “Gilligan” for Gideon.

The confusion reflects a tectonic shift in Maine’s political landscape. In a state that long considered Collins a moderate mainstay, many Democrats who once prided themselves on splitting their ballot see any vote for a Republican, even one they have supported for four terms, as a vote for Trump.

Ware, the voter from Skowhegan, said she came to believe that Collins had abandoned her pluck and individualism, either by political necessity or ideological change.

Throughout the summer of 2018, Ware said, she wrote often to Collins’s office. You will lose my vote if you confirm Kavanaugh, she warned. With millions of Americans and Maine constituents watching, the senator became the crucial 50th vote for his confirmation.

Since Collins’s last election, there’s been a remarkable change in public perception for an incumbent who received 68.5 percent of the vote in 2014. The next year, the senator received a 78 percent approval rating and was ranked the nation’s most popular Republican senator.

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But a recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll found that Collins is viewed favorably by just 45 percent of Maine voters. Gideon’s favorability rating was nearly 56 percent.

Still, Collins retains a substantial core of support.

“I think Collins knows the exact part of blue that the state of Maine is interested in,” said Mary Dabrieo of Kennebunk, a Republican who cited Collins’s call not to rush the appointment of Ginsburg’s successor.

On Kavanaugh, Dabrieo said, Collins “listened to the whole story and made the decision most Mainers would have made with the evidence provided."

For many others, the choice has been difficult.

“It is a hard decision because I have voted for Collins in the past, and she has done a lot of great things for the state of Maine,” said Patricia Hall of Lewiston. “But what is going on in Washington right now, particularly in the Senate, [means] we need to have a change there. And that change isn’t going to happen if Susan Collins stays.”

With just over a month until Election Day, Collins has time to rebound.

The Suffolk/Globe poll of likely voters showed a slight lead for Gideon, 46 to 41 percent. Much of the survey, whose results lie within the margin of error, was conducted before Ginsburg’s death.

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Those findings closely track a Colby College poll released Friday that showed Gideon leading, 45 to 41 percent, among “definite” or “likely” voters. An additional 8 percent said they would cast ballots for one of two independent candidates.

Under Maine’s ranked-choice voting system, in which voters can rank all of the candidates, the winner must receive more than 50 percent of the vote. That means the second choices of people who support the independents could well determine the race.

In the end, Trump will play a big role, said Colby professor Dan Shea, who chairs the government department and helped organize the poll.

"It’s more important than geography or partisanship,” Shea said. "If we know how people feel about Donald Trump, we can make a pretty good prediction about how they will vote in the Senate race. And that’s a problem for the senator.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com. Hanna can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @hannaskrueger.