Susan Collins Goes on the Attack

With few options left, the normally reserved senator is going aggressively negative as she tries to save her seat.

Susan Collins' head, wearing a solemn expression, peeks out above a wooden dais.
Sen. Susan Collins at the U.S. Capitol on July 21. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

There is less than a month to go before the election, and Sen. Susan Collins is scared. The long-serving Maine Republican hasn’t led in a poll for several months, and her unwillingness to distance herself from President Donald Trump is a serious liability in a state that currently prefers Joe Biden by a margin of more than 10 percentage points.

In an interview published in Politico this week, Collins lashed out at her Democratic opponent, Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, who Collins claimed “will say or do anything to try to win.” The senator spoke at uncharacteristic length to accuse Gideon of constructing her campaign “on a foundation of falsehoods … defaming my reputation and attacking my integrity.”

Collins blamed her consistent polling deficit, which still remains within the margin of error of some recent polls, on “non-stop negative ads” funded in part by money pouring in from out of state. She insisted that Gideon is an outsider whose campaign is, as Politico put it, “an arm of Chuck Schumer’s Washington operation.”

The accusations are more than a little hypocritical. Collins and her allies have been running plenty of negative ads against Gideon, which have been funded by plenty of money from national right-wing organizations and donors from around the country. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called Collins’ reelection campaign his “top priority.” One of Collins’ attack ads attacks Gideon for her attack ads.

It’s true that a few of Gideon’s ads, such as one that connected Collins’ donations from hotel industry groups to her inclusion of hotels in the Paycheck Protection Program, have been misleading. But many of Collins’ ads are deliberately distorted. One blasts Gideon for saying that non-front-liners didn’t have to wear face masks—on Feb. 29, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was saying the exact same thing. Another ad purports to show a Mainer trying to attend Gideon’s campaign events, then being asked to leave. According to the Gideon campaign, the videographer is a paid GOP staffer who has been turned away at recent events to leave room for other voters, due to the pandemic-related cap on attendance at public events. Before the pandemic hit, the campaign said, GOP staffers attended Gideon’s events without issue. (Collins’ constituents have noted that the senator hasn’t held a town hall in the two decades before this campaign.)

Since Gideon, like Collins, presents herself as a political moderate, the Collins campaign has struggled to land a hit on Gideon’s political record or ideology. At their first debate, the best attack Collins managed to make on her opponent came when she asked Gideon if she’d have voted to confirm John Roberts as a Supreme Court justice in 2005. It certainly caught Gideon off guard, but perhaps for good reason—it’s not clear that any voters would have expected Gideon to remember, on the spot, Roberts’ pre-SCOTUS judicial record from 15 years ago, before Gideon entered politics. Collins has since made a whole ad about the exchange. Another ad criticized Gideon for having too many “top priorities”—“building an economy that works for everyone,” “protecting the health and safety of our families and communities”—and just ended up repeating a lot of nice-sounding things Gideon wants to do. And though Gideon has repeatedly said she does not support calls to defund police departments, Collins is leaning hard on the donations and endorsements Gideon has accepted from “defund the police groups.” According to the Collins campaign, the “Defund the Police movement” includes Indivisible, the Sierra Club, and Planned Parenthood—the last of which gave Collins an award, which she graciously accepted, in 2017.

Without much to criticize policywise, the Collins campaign has gotten personal. In her Politico interview, Collins pointed out the differences between her deep family history in Maine and that of Gideon, who grew up in Rhode Island. “I grew up in Caribou, I’ve lived in Bangor for 26 years,” she said. “My family’s been in Maine for generations. She’s been in Maine for about 15 years and lives in Freeport.” Bangor is in central Maine, in an area with more Republican voters, while Freeport is on the more liberal coast. People in Maine have told me that, in some parts of the state, a resident won’t be accepted as a true Mainer unless she, her parents, and her grandparents were all born in the state. Some Mainers believe this strain of provincialism is xenophobic, given that Maine is more than 90 percent white. (Gideon’s father is from India.) The biography line on the Twitter account for Collins’ campaign staff, whose tweets are almost exclusively about Gideon, says Collins is “From Maine. Really.”

This argument, that Gideon can’t understand what real Maine life is like, is the thrust of one of the Maine Republican Party’s recent ads. It paints Gideon as a special snowflake who’s lived a life of sophisticated luxury, attending “private summer camp,” studying abroad in Paris, and living in New York City before settling in Maine, where she has a “300-foot dock” on her property. “Her only worry” growing up, the ad claims, citing a book by Gideon’s sister, was “being too popular.” The insinuation that Gideon is too rich to be a good senator is a little funny: According to financial disclosures, Gideon and her husband have a net worth of between $1 million and $3.1 million, while Collins and her husband’s net worth is between $2.3 and $6.9 million. The idea that being too popular is a ding against a politician’s character is even more absurd.

Then again, spinning unpopularity as a virtue may just be something Collins is trying to do for her own sake. In May 2019—a month before Gideon launched her campaign and well before she and her allies flooded Maine’s airwaves with anti-Collins ads—Collins marked a 17-point drop in her approval rating from the previous spring, a freefall that would make her the country’s least popular senator at the dawn of 2020. The major polling turning point for Collins, who used to be quite popular, was her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. It wasn’t money from out of state or any of Gideon’s attack ads that did it. It was Collins herself.