Politics

Why Susan Collins Won

I wanted Collins to lose. But after this horrible, overfunded campaign, I ended up making my own private protest against Sara Gideon.

Susan Collins stands in front of her campaign bus, waving to supporters
Sen. Susan Collins in Bangor, Maine, on Nov. 4. Scott Eisen/Getty Images

One day before the Nov. 3 election, Maine Senate polls showed Sara Gideon’s Senate bid continuing to hold a strong lead over incumbent Susan Collins. This was consistent with the lead polls had shown for months in the state. Somehow, Gideon’s concession came just 38 hours later.

Democrats all over the country were left scratching their heads. For months, Team Blue had prepared to unseat the candidate who voted for Brett Kavanaugh. The Gideon team raked in record funds, and it spent more than twice what the Collins campaign did. Hopes of flipping the Senate were riding on this race. How could she have lost?

Initial postmortems about the election upset certainly point out some of the factors that helped Collins stand her ground in the state: They mention Collins’ 24-year reputation as a moderate in the Senate. They point out that many Mainers split their ticket, ultimately voting for Biden and Collins, an understandable choice for voters who traditionally go Republican but felt compelled to cast a ballot for Biden this year. Once again, the polling was wrong—especially in Maine, where Gideon appears to have lost by about 9 percentage points, according to the AP.

We are only beginning to unpack exactly what happened as a clearer picture of the data emerges. But as we all stare down a future of extraordinarily well-funded Senate races, I wanted to take the opportunity to explain how this campaign season felt living in southern Maine. Because even as a Democrat and New York City transplant who supported Sara Gideon, I was left completely unsurprised by the outcome.

I wasn’t alone. From what I saw, Gideon ran on an ill-founded strategy, fueled by money she didn’t know how to spend.

The 2020 Maine U.S. Senate race was the best-funded and most expensive ever seen in the state, with Gideon blowing away all previous records. Of the $69,577,474 raised, a total of 60 percent ($41,846,965) came from out-of-state donors.

Even with roughly 45 percent of Collins’ much smaller contributions coming from other states, the enormity of Gideon’s funds opened her up to attacks. It propelled Collins’ election narrative: Sara was a transplant from the liberal NYC neighbor of Connecticut, being placed by outsiders to challenge “Our Senator” Susan, the independent figure born and bred in Maine. The flood of outside cash gave Collins’ attacks just enough truth to turn some stomachs in the fiercely proud state.

The historic funds might have afforded the Gideon campaign a huge opportunity to get involved at the local level. They could have stationed enough people throughout the state to gather a real understanding of the challenges felt within our communities during the ongoing pandemic.

They didn’t do it. Instead, perhaps drawing from Sara’s background in advertising, the Gideon team decided to create ads, ads, and—yes—more ads.

In October, the Bangor Daily News highlighted how difficult it was for the Gideon campaign to spend all the money it had received. Yet, with some of the lowest ad rates in the nation, the Gideon campaign doubled down hard on an attempt to be seen and heard everywhere and at all times.

What this meant for Mainers in reality is that the same flyer would hit the same mailbox two or three times in a single day. In my house, every single one was immediately tossed into the recycling bin. No medium—be it TV, radio, Facebook, YouTube, or Hulu—could be enjoyed without a constant barrage of advertisements, which became increasingly negative as the season dragged forward. By September, my dad was already absent-mindedly providing mocking recitations of Gideon ads without blinking an eye or missing a beat. My twin sons would scoff “mad!”—their 2-year-old way of saying “ad”—at a glimpse of Gideon on TV.

Others felt the same way. “The approach on the ads and campaigning was disgusting enough that I didn’t want to vote for the person anymore, even though I agreed with the policy stances,” Matt Gilbert, son of a four-term Democratic state representative, explained to the New York Times.

The other problem with the relentless ads is that marketing is a tactic, not a strategy. And what Gideon’s team had in visibility, they lacked in messaging.

Collins’ vote for Kavanaugh gave Gideon an opportunity to pick up an initial $3 million in crowdsourced funding and an endorsement from Planned Parenthood. It gave her an argument behind the thesis of “Collins isn’t who you thought she was!” But the rest of Gideon’s messaging tried to convince voters she was the right person to get things done by working across the aisle—a position Collins already had locked up in the eyes of many in the state.

For four terms, Collins polished her reputation in Maine as a moderate, independent thinker. Despite her inability to shake her Kavanaugh vote from public discourse, the fact is most Maine voters still see Collins as the figure that balked at party politics to protect the Affordable Care Act in 2017 and just a few weeks ago voted against Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination. Even as the country has polarized, Collins’ defining characteristic has been that she is a Republican who doesn’t side with this president. Gideon’s continued attempts to paint the senator as a lackey for Trump and McConnell were never going to be the one-two punch in the state that they were for the rest of the country.

Furthermore, beyond positioning herself as an alternative to Collins, Gideon could not succinctly explain what she stood for. To start, her stated reason for running was vague: “because she believes too many politicians in Washington are focused more on the special interests than the interests of the people they’re supposed to represent.” The challenge she had telling Mainers what she would focus on if elected was also apparent in the conflicting messages throughout her campaign, and even on the Gideon campaign website, where the priorities page explains her commitment to putting Maine first, but the first issue listed was “Reforming Washington.”

Being unable to make a strong case left Gideon without the moment of national recognition we saw happen in other highly watched states, such as the viral debate South Carolina challenger Jaime Harrison had against Sen. Lindsey Graham.*

When it came to communicating the few messages that could resonate—on health care, education, and economy—the Democratic campaign continuously made naive choices I worried would alienate its audience. Maine’s 65-and-older population continues to grow, as individuals under 19 are expected to make up just 21 percent of the state by 2023. But the Gideon campaign opted to use overly youthful phrasing (for example, press releases starting with “ICYMI”), consistently highlighted her young family, and filmed most videos from her home kitchen instead of a more professional office setting. Gideon is 48 and 19 years Collins’ junior. She needed to demonstrate maturity and gravitas to capture older voters. Instead, her team chose to showcase her youth.

In the end, the mix of Maine’s low advertising costs and the campaign’s inability to communicate strength in what Gideon would bring to the state wore on even those who desperately wanted a Collins replacement.

I went into the ballot booth fully intent on voting Collins out of office. But even I had a moment of hesitation before filling in the bubble for Gideon. When I finally did, I also chose to launch my own mini—albeit inconsequential—protest to all of the opportunities Gideon had wasted during her time in the limelight: I used the state’s ranked-choice voting to list Collins as my second choice.

Could the Senate seat in Maine still someday turn blue? Absolutely. But not with money—with authenticity, creativity, and community engagement. Things the Gideon campaign had a unique opportunity to offer, but lacked at every turn.

Correction, Nov. 19, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Lindsey Graham’s first name.