CORNISH, Maine — Susan Collins is the small-town girl who made good, the daughter of a lumber-company family who grew up near the Canadian border, paid her political dues, and now holds sway as the longest-serving Republican woman in the US Senate.
But this four-term incumbent, whose fate could decide which party controls the Senate, is struggling toward the finish line in the toughest race of her electoral life. That sprint to Tuesday, a whirlwind pitch to wavering voters, could be her last hurrah.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not for someone who once enjoyed sky-high favorability ratings and positioned herself as an exemplar of bipartisan politics. But times have changed — more divisiveness, more pressure from the right, four years of Donald Trump — and many Mainers are asking: Has Collins changed, too?
“That Supreme Court thing really bothered me,” said 44-year-old Brett Walling, a Hiram man who just a minute earlier had greeted Collins with a big smile at a campaign stop here. "I’m on the fence.”
Walling was referring to Collins’s pivotal vote in 2018 to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the high court. While allegations of sexual assault threatened to derail the confirmation, Collins kept the nation in suspense before announcing, in unexpectedly emphatic terms, that she would support Kavanaugh’s nomination.
An uproar among Democrats and independents led to $4 million being raised for whomever would oppose Collins in 2020. The beneficiary was Sara Gideon, the Democratic speaker of the Maine House, who has been holding a slight lead over Collins in recent polls.
Collins, 67, was welcomed warmly at her recent rally here, posing for photos in light rain with dozens of people, many of whom knew her personally. That’s not uncommon in a state where many of its 1.3 million people have met their senators.
“Can I get your picture?” asked 94-year-old Shirley Milliken of West Baldwin. “Absolutely, I’d love that,” Collins answered.
“I think she’s really efficient and does what she thinks is right,” Milliken said afterward. “She’s been good for the state of Maine and believes in what she says.”
Despite the amiability, even some Republicans in Maine now have doubts about a senator they thought they knew.
“I continue to support her,” said former governor Paul LePage, whose controversial two terms helped stoke a rise of far-right politics here.
“However, I believe the Republicans in Maine are moving right and support traditional values of law and order, family, religion, and patriotism,” LePage added. “The senator is a centrist and no longer embraces many values of Mainers.”
But many Mainers believe that Collins has drifted rightward. So much so, some newspapers have displayed full-page ads from moderate Republicans stating their intention to vote for Gideon.
“It seems that one wants something more, especially with Donald Trump in the White House,” said Janet Martin, a government professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. “You can point to individual votes, but I don’t see her making statements where she breaks with her party and Mitch McConnell,” the Senate majority leader.
Where is Collins on climate change, Martin asked. Where is she on the coronavirus, the professor added.
Collins also did not vote to convict the president during his impeachment trial, although she famously said she hoped Trump had “learned his lesson.” She approved Trump’s tax bill in 2017, which disproportionately benefited corporations and the wealthy. And while she opposed the recent nomination of conservative Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, she did so on procedural grounds because of its proximity to the election.
That vote by Collins, which Trump blasted, was viewed by some of her critics as yet another example of wanting it both ways. With that vote, critics said, she tried to placate liberals and some independents by voting against the nomination. She also sought to avoid alienating the president’s base by refusing to criticize Barrett on the merits.
Is this courageous bipartisanship or trying too hard to thread the needle? After all, this is a state known for independent leaders such as Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican senator who spoke out against McCarthyism, and William Cohen, a Republican congressman who voted to impeach President Richard Nixon and later won a seat in the Senate.
Its other current senator is Angus King, an independent and former governor who caucuses with the Democrats. The last Democrat elected senator from Maine was George Mitchell in 1988.
"I don’t know any issue that would be necessarily attached to her, a signature issue that she was involved with,” Martin said. “She’s the most senior Republican woman in the Senate. Unless you read that somewhere, you wouldn’t even know that.”
Gideon scoffs at Collins’s claim to be a political moderate, criticizing her as a McConnell loyalist who rarely breaks with her party. Gideon, 48, a Rhode Island native who moved to Maine in 2004, has made affordable health care a cornerstone of her campaign.
Gideon supports a public option for anyone who wishes to buy into Medicare and harshly criticizes Collins for voting to eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which penalized some people who did not purchase health insurance.
The race has been called the most negative Senate contest in the country by the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks television advertising in federal and gubernatorial races. And the $160 million that has poured into the election, about 90 percent of the money from out of state, has shattered state campaign records.
The deluge of negativity — most of it from Gideon’s camp, the media project found — has dismayed many Mainers whose home had long been viewed as a model of civic discourse.
But that was then. Today, Maine is a state with a deep Trump base in its rural north and interior, a state whose Second Congressional District gave Trump his sole electoral vote in New England in 2016.
The outcome of the four-candidate Senate race could come down to second choices. If neither Collins nor Gideon collects at least 50 percent of the votes, Maine’s ranked system will tabulate the second preferences of voters until someone reaches a majority.
That would seem to favor Gideon, who stands to benefit from votes cast for Lisa Savage, a progressive independent to the left of the Democrat.
In an interview, Collins said she recognizes the harsh changes in Maine politics.
“A lot of people are really tired of the negative ads, and they think this kind of politics, which we’ve not experienced in Maine before, is disgraceful. I think there’s starting to be a real pushback against it," Collins said.
“I’m the last remaining Republican in either the House or the Senate in New England, and that causes an impression of whether moderate Republicans can still be elected," Collins said. "But the fact is that despite being grossly outspent, our race is essentially tied. So, we’ll see.”
Still, the political geography is changing. Much of the coast of Maine, except for Down East, is now reliably blue. Statewide, registered Democrats have moved ahead of Republicans and independents.
But in Cornish, a small town 35 miles west of Portland, the senator arrived Thursday less like a celebrity politician than as a close relative who had gone away for a while.
“I remember the last time you visited, six years ago,” gift-store owner Kate Benson said as Collins entered for a tour.
“What a neat place,” Collins said. “Do you do the jewelry, too? These are so lovely.”
With that, the woman whose political fate will affect the nation chose a pair of earrings, plucked some cash from her wallet, and laid it on the counter.
Collins picked up her change, flashed a wave, and began walking toward the sidewalk and the rain.
“Goodbye," Benson said. “You’ll have my support next week.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.