Donald Trump didn’t attend Friday night’s Senate candidate debate in Maine, but his shadow loomed over the proceedings. From the first question to the closing statements, Sen. Susan Collins was repeatedly asked to answer for the leader of her party, who currently trails Joe Biden by a double-digit margin in statewide polls.
As soon as the debate began, a moderator from a Maine NBC station asked Collins how she felt about the fact that Trump lied to Americans about the novel coronavirus in February, referencing the news that broke this week that Trump told Bob Woodward that the coronavirus was deadlier than the flu while insisting to the public that it was nothing to worry about and continuing to hold indoor, in-person rallies. Collins registered her gentle disagreement with his decision to keep the country in the dark about a virus that has now killed more than 190,000 Americans.
“I believe the president should have been straightforward,” she said, calling the president’s handling of the pandemic “uneven.”
For the duration of the Maine Senate race, Trump’s unpopularity in Maine, and the fact that Collins shares a party with him, has been the principal advantage enjoyed by Collins’ Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, who currently serves as the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives and is leading Collins by a slim margin in all major polls. Gideon played to that strength throughout the debate, pressing Collins on two separate occasions to reveal who she supports in the upcoming presidential election. (Collins wrote an op-ed disavowing Trump in the months before the 2016 election; this time around, she’s said she plans to “stay out” of the presidential race.)
“She has neglected to answer that question,” Gideon said. Collins explained her refusal to answer by saying the people of Maine didn’t need her opinion on the race. On her recent bus tour of the state, she said, “not a single person asked me who should be our next president.”
Collins attempted to land a blow on Gideon several times, but nothing she did quite stuck. She asked Gideon whether she’d return the $6 million she’s allegedly received from organizations that support defunding police forces, but Gideon had already said, emphatically, “I do not support defunding the police.” She faulted Gideon of having unpaid interns, an allegation raised by a newspaper columnist last month. Gideon simply ignored that claim. Collins also accused Gideon of running the majority of campaign advertisements in the state. So?
The only time Collins got Gideon to stumble was when Brett Kavanaugh came up. Gideon didn’t even mention the justice by name as she answered the moderator’s question about judicial appointments; she told me in an interview a few months ago that she doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about Kavanaugh on the trail because he’s not a main concern for the Mainers she needs to sway. Instead, she pointed out that Collins has voted to install 170 Trump-appointed judges to the federal judiciary, including one who was rated unqualified by the American Bar Association. Still, Collins’ vote for Kavanaugh was a major turning point for many of her constituents, particularly those who are now passionately working to unseat her. At the debate, the senator spun that vote as an example of her consistency: She’s voted to confirm every single Supreme Court justice nominated during her tenure, including those put forth by Barack Obama.
And then Collins noted that since Gideon had been critical of her decision to support Kavanaugh, she was curious: Would Gideon have supported Chief Justice John Roberts, had she been in the Senate at the time of his confirmation?
Gideon stammered out something about needing to do her research. “She’s ducking the question,” Collins smirked. OK, but were any voters expecting a candidate who hadn’t even held elected office when Roberts was nominated 15 years ago to recall, on the spot, what his pre–Supreme Court record looked like?
Lucky for Gideon, closing statements were next, allowing her a return to her winning message. “Susan Collins does not stand up to Donald Trump,” she said. “She votes with him 94 percent of the time.”
Collins opted to end the evening with a remembrance of Sept. 11—she told a story of singing God Bless America with her colleagues on the steps of the Capitol—and a thinly veiled plea for voters to forget the other people in the party she represents. “We need to remember that we are not Republicans, Democrats, and Independents first,” she said. “We are Americans.”