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Senate Democratic candidates have momentum everywhere — except Maine

Sara Gideon and Susan Collins have their final debate Wednesday night.

Susan Collins and Sara Gideon.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Beginning in mid-September, Democrats started to see renewed energy going their way. Joe Biden began consistently polling double digits ahead of President Trump. More than a dozen battleground US House races moved more Democratic, according to the experts. And, for the first time, Democratic Senate candidates in places like Georgia, South Carolina, Kansas, and Alaska had momentum paving the way for a majority, maybe a comfortable one.

Meanwhile, a Maine Senate race that has been nationally watched for years has been stuck since February. Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House, has led every poll, but except for an outlier here and there, has only led within the margin of error or by a few points.


Ahead of their final debate on Wednesday night, a Colby College poll released Wednesday showed Gideon leading three-term Republican incumbent Susan Collins 46.4 percent to 43.4 percent, a lead smaller than the poll’s margin of error of 3.3 percent.

“The race has been extremely tight for months and has only gotten tighter,” said Dan Shea, Colby College Government Department chair and lead researcher on the poll.

If Democrats are feeling good about a big wave nationally, that wave doesn’t seem to be coming to where the tidal range is among the biggest in the country: the Pine Tree state.

To be sure, if Gideon is stuck, so, too, is Collins, who rarely polls above 43 percent in support. And while Gideon remains below 50 percent support herself, under Maine’s method of ranked-choice voting, Gideon is expected to receive the vast bulk of the second-choice votes from Green Party-backed Lisa Savage, an independent, who is polling at 5 percent.

What’s notable about Maine lately isn’t that Gideon could win, but that for some reason she is unable to break free of Collins.


Consider what is happening in Colorado. For much of the 2020 election cycle, experts lumped in Colorado and Maine Senate races in the same sentence. Both featured vulnerable Republican incumbents, in states Hillary Clinton handily won, facing well-financed moderate Democratic challengers.

In Colorado, former governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, opened up an eight-point lead over Republican Senator Cory Gardner. But in Maine, the race remains statistically tied.

It’s not that Gideon hasn’t been bestowed with the same advantages as other Democrats this year. She has raised $69.5 million compared to Collins’s $27.1 million, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. There is also plenty of outside money helping both candidates, including a $10 million spending spree from liberal groups just announced for Gideon.

So why hasn’t Gideon been able to break away while other Democrats have opened wider leads in more Democratic areas? It may come down to two reasons. First, this race is all about Collins, and public opinion on her is baked in at this point.

Trying to rebrand Collins is proving just as hard as Trump’s attempts to tear down Biden in the presidential race. Both Collins and Biden have been in politics for a long time and are known brands. Collins may have found her polling floor years ago during Trump’s tenure and it is not changing now. Conversely, there is little reason to believe that Collins helped herself by being the only Republican to vote against the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court.


It turned out her vote for Brett Kavanaugh was all that mattered.

Second, Gideon may have hit her polling ceiling because of ranked-choice voting. Without it, supporters of Savage might have been encouraged to lift up Gideon outside of the margin of error. But with it, many on the left get to voice their displeasure with Gideon, who doesn’t support proposals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, while not harming their desire to kick out Collins.

In the end, 48-year-old Gideon may well win and may well hold the Senate seat for decades. But this win could not be as easy as some Democrats think it should have been in a season when a Democrat is tied with Lindsey Graham in deeply Republican South Carolina.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.