This fall, bright red lawn signs have sprouted up around Maine that stick Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) in company she’s avoided like her political life depends on it.
One of the names in big block letters next to Collins’ is not a problem: Dale Crafts, the GOP nominee for Congress in Maine’s 2nd District. The other name, however, is less welcome: President Donald Trump.
“Make Maine Great Again, Make America Great Again,” implores the sign, which urges a Crafts-Collins-Trump vote, and is ringed with the words “God, life, guns, Maine, America.”
If Collins is to win re-election this fall—facing the toughest challenge of her political career from Democrat Sara Gideon—it will be because Maine voters were able to separate their longtime senator from the other famous name on the sign. If Collins loses, it will be in large part because their political fates had become inseparable.
And the irony is that both largely want nothing to do with the other: Collins has run a campaign that seeks to will the national political environment, and Trump, almost out of existence—literally, at times. This summer, Collins’ campaign blurred out a Trump campaign sign that was in the background of a photo they posted to social media. Beyond that, when asked, Collins has steadfastly refused to say if she will vote for the president, and rarely speaks about him unless prompted.
Never his favorite senator, Trump has begun to openly tee off on Collins after she announced her opposition to his push to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat before the November election. After ticking through a litany of perceived slights in a tweet last week, Trump tweeted a brusque assessment of the embattled senator: “Not worth the work!”
Left to sort through the rubble of this relationship is a constituency that Collins can’t afford to lose: Maine’s considerable base of devoted Trump supporters. And so far, there’s no indication that the senator’s efforts to distance herself from the president—and the president’s inability to resist attacking her—are affecting their plans to back Collins ahead of a critical election.
One of them is Arthur Langley, who runs the pro-Trump grassroots organization in Maine that paid for the Trump-Collins signs. He brushed off Trump’s tweet, saying it was not a directive to reject Collins and was simply an expression of disagreement among fellow Republicans.
“The big question is, does the president want a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate?” Langley said. “He’s said very clearly that he does... having Sen. Collins elected in Maine would be part of having a Republican majority. It’s not a Trump majority, it’s a Republican majority.”
Interviews with Maine Republicans, GOP operatives, and pollsters reveal that Collins is in no real danger of losing significant support from the right in her contest against Gideon—even as she pushes their standard bearer away with both hands and rejects their prized Supreme Court pick, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, literally days before the election.
Collins’ quick declaration after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death that she would not support a Trump nominee to the high court before the Nov. 3 election upset a lot of Trump supporters in Maine, said Ray Richardson, a longtime conservative talk radio host in the state who is well-connected in GOP circles there. The immense popularity of the eventual nominee, Barrett, among the conservative base has only made her position that much harder.
But echoing many Republicans in the state, Richardson doesn’t think that Collins’ vote will be an obstacle for her in maintaining her right flank. “I think they’ve settled down and realized that having Susan Collins in the Senate is important if Trump wins,” Richardson told The Daily Beast. “And it’s even more important if he doesn’t.”
That, ultimately, is the calculus for hardline Maine Republicans. Trump’s use of his bully pulpit to bully Collins—from the tweet to his recent declaration she will “be hurt very badly” and “her people aren’t going to take this”—likely won’t matter because Maine’s Trump supporters don’t really have another option.
The larger challenge for Collins, however, is that the GOP coming home may not save her from defeat.
The senator has two bigger problems, said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist who’s worked on races in the state: Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s clear statewide advantage on the presidential ticket, and Maine’s ranked choice voting system, in which candidates who get a plurality, but not a majority, of votes do not win outright.
“It matters less what the marginal Trump voter thinks and more about, are there enough Trump voters,” Donovan said. “That’s Collins’ fundamental problem: she doesn’t make her own wake anymore. She’s surfing his, and at the end of the day, he’s not doing well enough for that marginal Trump voter to matter.”
“In the irony of ironies,” said Richardson, “Collins’ fate may be tied to how Donald Trump does here.”
For months, Collins’ Democratic foes have sensed this very possibility as a key weakness for the incumbent, as they seek to direct anti-Trump sentiment toward Collins. Gideon has sought to make the campaign in part a referendum on Collins’ hands-off response to the immense threats of Trump’s presidency and his impact on politics.
The sight of Republican-distributed signs linking Trump and Collins across Maine delighted Democrats—because they’d been trying to do the same thing themselves. In a bit of election-season trolling, the Maine Democratic Party paid for “Trump-Collins” lawn signs to go up across the state, designed in the style of Trump’s distinct campaign aesthetic.
The local pro-Trump group responsible for the signs also ran ads on Maine talk radio, which endorsed the entire slate of GOP congressional candidates on the ballot, by framing them as needed reinforcements for Trump’s agenda—another note of music to Democrats’ ears.
“These three people are the kind of people President Trump needs in Washington,” says the ad. “Their drive and determination to work for all of Maine and America will be a great help as President Trump leads the great American comeback and works to Make America Great Again.”
Langley, who placed the ads and signs, seemed to reject any notion that this was perhaps politically inopportune for Collins. “They’re all Republicans,” said Langley of the signs and ads. “Politics is a team sport.”
While Collins has been a key vote for Trump and the GOP at times, such as the pivotal 2018 confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, she’s also the least reliable vote for his agenda in the Senate GOP conference. According to FiveThirtyEight, she has voted with Trump 67.5 percent of the time since 2017.
Throughout this race, Collins has attempted to delicately thread a needle of distancing herself from the president while not overtly alienating his supporters. Few of them forget 2016, when Collins wrote a Washington Post op-ed saying she could not vote for Trump, arguing he did not “reflect historical Republican values nor the inclusive approach to governing that is critical to healing the divisions in our country.”
Now on the ballot this year, Collins has refused to disclose who she will vote for, saying in a September debate, “I don’t think the people of Maine need my advice on whom to support for president.” While she has criticized Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Collins and her camp have not really engaged with his recent attacks on her. In response to last week’s tweet, Collins’ spokesperson said the senator “works with this president—like she does with all presidents—when she thinks he’s right, and she opposes him when she thinks he’s wrong.”
But Collins herself has made quiet outreach to corners of the party where support for Trump, and suspicion of her, are high. On Monday, Collins was interviewed by Carroll Conley, director of a right-wing religious group called the Christian Civic League of Maine, to accept the group’s endorsement. In 2016, former leaders of the league were pushing to criminalize homosexuality in Maine, and their members continue to staunchly oppose abortion and gay rights.
Internally, the CCL’s decision to back Collins did not appear to come without controversy among its members. Collins has historically been a supporter of abortion rights, and was recognized by Planned Parenthood as recently as 2017 for her advocacy.
On the group’s Facebook post announcing the Collins endorsement, some members called it tantamount to betrayal that a staunchly pro-life group could back someone like Collins. In their interview, Conley alluded to this, saying the endorsement of Collins was “not a casual endorsement” and that “we’ve had some significant political issues” in the past.
But instead of pressing her, Conley served up softballs that allowed Collins to talk about the slightly more palatable aspects of her record—her support, for example, of the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from going toward abortions. The senator raised fears that if Democrats took the Senate and the White House, they would swiftly overturn the Hyde Amendment. “I see myself as being part of the firewall in the Senate to prevent really extreme legislation from going through,” said Collins.
This conversation, however, did not go unnoticed by the groups working to defeat Collins. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ rights organization which has never opposed the senator until this year, slammed her for accepting the support of a “far-right, anti-LGBTQ group,” saying “Collins has again chosen to pander to the far-right rather than stand by the principles she professed for years.”
The senator’s courting of votes in her far-right flank, as past endorsers like the HRC abandon her, speaks to how her tried-and-true political coalition simply may be impossible to assemble in today’s Maine. Since her first election in 1996, Collins has won by huge margins thanks to support from devoted Republicans, independents, and even some Democrats.
In 2008, when Barack Obama won Maine with 57 percent of the vote, Collins outran him, winning over 61 percent. As Democrats netted eight U.S. Senate seats for a comfortable majority, Collins was the only GOP incumbent to win a state that Obama carried.
The world of 2020, of course, is far different. Traditionally independent-minded Maine is now, like most states, a place where ticket-splitting for federal races is a rarity. Observers believe that Collins’ vote to confirm Kavanaugh torpedoed any chance she had to win a significant share of voters who might back a Democrat.
Recent polls of the Maine race show stark partisanship on display: a late September survey from the outfit Data for Progress showed Gideon commanding support from 93 percent of Democrats, and Collins getting 86 percent of Republicans. Notably, it also showed Gideon with more support from self-identified GOP voters than Collins had with self-identified Democrats.
Overall, Gideon led Collins, 50 percent to 42 percent, in a head-to-head match in which Data for Progress tried to simulate Maine’s ranked choice voting system. Under those rules, voters list their candidates in order of preference, and their second choices get their vote should their first choice not garner enough support. Lower-performing candidates drop and their supporters’ backups are released until one candidate reaches 50 percent support.
There are Democrats and Republicans who believe this voting method will make it that much harder for Collins to find a path to victory: two other candidates are on the ballot, including a Green Party-aligned candidate who has urged her supporters to list Gideon as a backup. The other candidate, Max Linn, is a vaguely Trumpian character who’s failed to garner much of any support among conservatives.
“She’s been able to keep it neck-and-neck with independents,” said Ethan Winter, who led the survey for Data for Progress. “She’s running ahead of Trump, she’s definitely been able to lock down Republicans in the state… the problem is, there aren’t enough Republicans.”
This is where the Trump tweet comes back into play. Some local Republicans believe that Trump, in his way, was strategically trying to help Collins—giving her a “maverick” appeal by attacking her in a state where he is less popular, Winter theorized.
But many more have a hard time buying that Trump, who is on record predicting he will win Maine, was actually trying to help Collins in a roundabout way. A “three-dimensional chess move,” said Donovan, “is not what this is. It’s not helpful, it’s a distraction.”
Perhaps, theorized some longtime Collins-watchers, the tenor of Trump’s tweet was a tacit acknowledgement he’s stuck with her, too. “If he wanted to blow her up the way he did to Jeff Sessions in Alabama, he could’ve done it,” said Eric Lusk, a longtime GOP politico in Maine, referring to Trump’s scorched-earth campaign to defeat his former ally in a Senate primary in Alabama.
“Here, he doesn’t have an alternative,” said Lusk. “He’s gotta go with who brung him.”