Politics

In the End, Maine Went Back to Susan Collins

The activists who spent the past four years working to oust her are devastated, but undeterred.

Susan Collins, in a red parka, speaks into a microphone at a transparent podium.
Sen. Susan Collins announces her victory on Wednesday in Bangor, Maine. Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Republican Susan Collins won her fifth term in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, beating challenger Sara Gideon, the Democratic speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. With 95 percent of votes counted, the candidates won 51 percent and 42.4 percent of the vote, respectively, making the race by far the closest Collins has run since her first Senate campaign in 1996, when she promised voters that she’d serve no more than two terms if elected.

Still, Collins’ sizable margin of victory came as a surprise, given Gideon’s consistent lead in the polls over the past several months. But Collins received more than 50 percent of the vote, which means there would be no tallying of second-choice votes under Maine’s ranked-choice voting system, which the state was using for the first time in a presidential election. Some analysts believed the system could swing the vote in Gideon’s favor if enough minor-party voters listed Gideon as their second choice, but in the end, Collins won outright. (The two independent candidates in the race were progressive Lisa Savage, who got 5 percent of the vote, and Trump-supporting anti-masker Max Linn, who netted almost 2 percent.)

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The result is a blow for Maine Democrats, many of whom spent much of the past four years working to oust Collins. Melissa Berky, 65, a member of an Indivisible chapter in Bangor, said the senator’s win took her by surprise. “We had poll after poll after poll putting Gideon ahead by 4 percent. It seemed like so many polls had her up that I was hopeful, even though both camps continued to say, ‘Well, look, it’s really tight,’ ” she said. “When you get 10 polls with Gideon up, you start to believe that.”

James Cook, 49, who has been organizing the Midcoast Maine chapter of Indivisible for the past four years, was watching the returns come in on the Bangor Daily News website on Tuesday night. He started to suspect Gideon wouldn’t do as well as expected when he saw towns like Lewiston and Auburn, which Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, going for Collins. Collins ended up winning several towns that went for Joe Biden this year. As expected, she vastly outperformed Donald Trump, who lost the state by about 8 points. Collins had refused to say whether she supported her party’s presidential nominee.

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Cook and his fellow Indivisible members had Collins at the top of their hit list, right alongside Trump. In recent weeks, they’d been holding twice-weekly gatherings in a public square in Rockland to talk to neighbors and remind people to vote. Members of the group had been phone- and text-banking, canvassing door to door, and serving as poll watchers. “We were really out there in force, and quite active right up until the time when the polls closed,” Cook said.

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But their efforts, and the efforts of thousands of other Maine activists, many of them political newcomers, were not enough to overcome Collins’ campaign. The Wesleyan Media Project dubbed the historically expensive race the most negative Senate race in the country, with 63 percent negative ads. “It was really disheartening, because Collins really pulled out all the stops and went full Trumper for the last several weeks,” said Berky, citing Collins’ nativist attacks on Gideon. The Collins campaign and the Maine Republican Party made much of Gideon’s roots in Rhode Island, accusing her of being “from away”—a heavy charge in a state that has been traditionally, and some say xenophobically, suspicious of newcomers (Gideon’s father is Indian). Cook took note of “mailers custom cut in the shape of a lighthouse” that Collins sent to voters with a late surge of funding. When all is said and done, both campaigns and outside groups will have raised and spent around $200 million on the race. There are about 1 million registered voters in Maine.

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For the activists who have been working for years to convince their fellow Mainers that Collins is more of a cowardly partisan than the prudent, independent-minded moderate she’s made herself out to be, the senator’s reelection is more than a letdown. Ousting Collins was key to Democrats’ plan to retake the Senate, a goal that was important to these activists in part due to its role in selecting Supreme Court justices. That goal now seems almost out of reach. “What I’ve heard from a lot of other people over the past 16 hours is a profound sadness, disappointment, and despair from a moral sense that [the presidential election] should not have been this close,” Cook said. “I’m talking about the Trump presidential level, but also all the way down the line for those who stood with Donald Trump, including Sen. Susan Collins.” Cook and his group planned to commit their first-ever act of civil disobedience on Wednesday evening by marching in the streets at a demonstration, calling for every vote to be counted as the president took steps to halt vote counts in several battleground states.

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Berky and her group are considering holding a large event in Bangor if Trump’s attempts to subvert the election results escalate. But for tonight, they’re gathering on Zoom to commiserate over Collins, celebrate some progressive wins, and be there to support one another in a community that didn’t exist in 2016. “I don’t regret any time or effort that we put into this,” Berky said. “I have to believe that it’s all to the positive, what we did. I don’t know how we pick up the pieces and move forward, but I believe we will. Our group, our team—we will be staying engaged. And that piece feels really good.”

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Cook is ready to forge ahead, knowing that there will be plenty of fights for his group to wage in coming months. But he’s also taking time to process a profound sense of loss. “There have been times when we have felt, in Maine, that our main weapon was our sincerity: that we meant what we said, that we weren’t owned by anybody, and we were expressing ourselves and affiliating and caring. And we had this faith that that might carry the day,” Cook said. Now, after Collins’ loss, “I think we’ve lost a little faith in the power of sincere citizens standing up and speaking their truth.”

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