PORTLAND, Maine — Republican incumbent Susan Collins won a fifth term to the US Senate Wednesday, defeating Democrat Sara Gideon in a hard-fought election that drew high turnout, a flurry of negative advertising, and more than $160 million in campaign spending.
At a rally in Bangor, Collins announced that Gideon had phoned her to concede. The Associated Press on Wednesday called the race for Collins, who is poised to become the longest-serving Republican woman senator in US history.
“Let me say what an extraordinary honor it is to represent the great state of Maine and to know that I will have the opportunity to serve all of Maine for the next six years,” she told supporters, drawing a roar of applause.
Collins, 67, said she felt the vote was "an affirmation of the work I am doing in Washington to fight hard every day for the people of Maine.”
Collins led Gideon, 51 percent to 42 percent, after 98 percent of the vote had been counted Wednesday. The size of that gap came as a surprise considering that Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, had consistently maintained a slight lead over Collins in recent polls, buoyed by a huge influx of out-of-state donations seeking to wrest control of the Senate from Republicans.
During a brief video address, Gideon, 48, told supporters she had been “humbled, touched, and inspired by you and your stories each and every day.”
“We’ve brought people together and put forward a set of ideas and a vision to move this state and its people forward,” she said. "While we came up short, I do believe Mainers in every corner of this state are ready to continue to work together to make a difference.”
She said she congratulated Collins and told the senator she “will always be available to help support the people of Maine.”
For Collins, raised in the far-northern town of Caribou, her toughest reelection campaign was a dramatic reversal in a career long defined by soaring favorability ratings and praise as a bipartisan moderate.
The only Republican in the New England congressional delegation, Collins prides herself on traditional constituent service and securing federal funds for Maine. But on broader national issues, she has met headwinds from critics who say she has become more interested in political expediency than bridge-building, and that she has hewed too closely to President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Before the election, many media outlets had been writing Collins’s political obituary, citing blowback in Maine about her controversial vote to nominate Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and her decision to acquit Trump during his impeachment trial.
The senator approved the president’s tax bill in 2017, which bestowed big benefits on corporations and the wealthy. That legislation also eliminated the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which required most Americans to enroll in health insurance as a way to reduce overall costs.
Still, Collins found a way to victory. And when she takes the oath of office in January, Collins will begin an unprecedented fifth term for a Republican woman senator. In doing so, she will bypass Margaret Chase Smith, a Maine Republican icon who served four terms from 1949 to 1973.
Much of Collins’s road to victory lay in familiar turf. She performed exceptionally well in the interior and Down East parts of Maine where conservative sentiment runs deep. Trump won an electoral vote in the vast, rural Second Congressional District, just as he did in 2016.
And although Collins did not do as much retail politicking as Gideon, who crisscrossed the state for 16 months, she brought a low-key dose of folksy familiarity to her campaign stops.
Gideon did not attract as much support as expected in the left-leaning communities along Maine’s southern and mid-coast. In town after town along the state’s blue belt, she trailed Joe Biden’s margins of victory over Trump.
In the city of Saco, Gideon defeated Collins, 6,333 to 5,536. Biden’s margin over the president there was 7,794 to 4,497. In York, Gideon won, 5,191 to 4,104; Biden won bigger, 6,117 to 3,352.
Gideon, who moved to Maine in 2004, met thousands of voters at campaign events such as “Suppers with Sara” and Town Hall-style forums. A two-term speaker of the House, she endorsed a public option that would have allowed anyone to buy into Medicare, spoke passionately on climate change, and championed reproductive rights for women.
Maybe the Collins campaign’s references to Gideon’s roots in Rhode Island played a role in the race. Maybe Gideon’s many negative ads against Collins contributed to voter fatigue in what the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising, called the most negative Senate race in the country.
And maybe many Mainers, in the end, were simply comfortable with what they know.
The race barely avoided heading to Maine’s ranked-choice calculation, under which a winning candidate must collect at least 50 percent of the vote. Neither Collins nor Gideon had reached that threshold in recent polls.
If Collins had finished under 50 percent, the second and possibly third choices of voters in the four-candidate race would have been reallocated. The complicated process could have lasted more than a week.
Dan Shea, chair of the Colby College government department, said the outcome underscored Maine’s political independence.
“Many scholars and pundits had thought split-ticket voting was a relic of the past. And across the country, they might be right. But not here in Maine,” said Shea, who supervised Colby’s polling during this election cycle. The college’s last survey, in late October, showed Gideon with a three-point lead.
“The only state in the last two presidential elections where the same party did not win both the presidential and Senate election was Maine," Shea said. “Susan ran up exceptionally large margins in the rural parts of the state. A lot of these communities are small, but the huge margins added up. Gideon got clobbered in the Second Congressional District and in other rural parts of the state.”
Collins had been buoyant late on Election Night when she addressed supporters outside the Bangor hotel where she had been tracking the results.
“My opponent certainly has thrown everything at me but the kitchen sink. In fact, I think that’s coming next,” Collins said. “The other side thought they could come to Maine and just run negative ads, dump loads and loads, millions of dollars, and just buy this Senate seat.
“But is that the Maine way? No, it certainly is not.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.