GOP Sen. Susan Collins wins reelection against Democrat Sara Gideon in Maine

Grace Panetta,Ellen Cranley,Oma Seddiq

 

Republican Sen. Susan Collins fended off a tough reelection challenge from state House Speaker Sara Gideon, according to projections from Insider and Decision Desk HQ.

Collins led Gideon with 50.9% of the vote on Wednesday. Gideon called Collins to concede early Wednesday afternoon.

The candidates

For decades Collins has cultivated a unique political brand as an independent, moderate, New England Republican who was supportive of abortion access and LGBTQ rights. In 2019, the Lugar Center at Georgetown University rated her the most bipartisan senator in the 116th Congress.

For most of her career, Collins enjoyed high approval ratings from her constituents for her strong bipartisan record in the Senate, and she was easily reelected in 2002, 2008, and 2014.

But President Donald Trump's winning in 2016 and taking over the GOP mantle made it much more difficult for Collins to thread the needle between being a member of the Republican Party and maintaining her highly specialized brand of bipartisan politics.

While Collins broke with the party to vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act in 2017, she infuriated some Democrats by voting to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.

Gideon, a four-term state representative, easily consolidated the Democratic field and proved to be a prolific fundraiser, substantially outraising Collins in 2020's most recent fundraising quarter. When she formally clinched the nomination on July 14, she received a $4 million windfall that activists had raised to support Collins' eventual Democratic opponent.

Two independent candidates, Lisa Savage and Max Linn, were also running in the Senate race.

Maine uses a ranked-choice voting system, where voters rank all the candidates in order of preference. Voters' second choices can be counted in a ranked-choice runoff if no candidate earns over 50% of the vote outright and their first choice was not one of the top two vote-getters.

The stakes

In addition to winning back the White House, regaining control of the Senate for the first time since 2015 is a top priority for Democrats and would help deliver on Joe Biden's policy goals or thwart Trump's second-term agenda.

The Senate is made up of 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats, and two independents who caucus with Democrats, meaning Democrats need to win back a net total of four seats to have a 51-seat majority. (If Biden wins, his vice president would also serve as president of the Senate and would be a tie-breaking vote.)

The Senate also recently underwent a high-stakes confirmation battle to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died at age 87 from pancreatic cancer on September 18, with Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

Ginsburg's death threw a stick of dynamite into an already supercharged election shaped by a pandemic that has killed over 230,000 Americans.

The Supreme Court opening put Collins in a bind after the immense political hit she took from voting to confirm Kavanaugh. She ended up being the sole Republican to vote against confirming Barrett.

In mid-October, Trump attacked her in a tweet for expressing a belief that the Senate shouldn't confirm a Supreme Court nominee before an election, calling her "not worth the work."

Collins is no stranger to winning split-ticket crossover votes. In the past two general elections where she was also up f0r reelection, 1996 and 2008, she won her election by double digits, though Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama carried Maine in the Electoral College.

But 2020 was the biggest test yet of whether Collins could separate herself from Trump's increasingly toxic brand and worsening ratings of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis — not to mention some of her own most controversial votes.

Collins emphasized that she hadn't changed her approach to legislating or become a far-right partisan but rather the political world around her had gotten substantially more toxic and divisive. But she still found herself in between a rock and a hard place by trying to appeal to both sides.

A poll conducted by The New York Times and Siena College in mid-September found that voters overwhelmingly disapproved of her votes to confirm Kavanaugh and not to impeach Trump but largely approved of her vote against repealing the ACA. In the poll, 49% of voters said they thought she supported Trump too much, while 38% said she supported Trump "about the right amount."

See Insider's full guide to the race for the US Senate here »

The money race

Gideon both massively outraised and outspent Collins, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with the candidates raising a combined $93.6 million.

Gideon raised an eye-popping $69.5 million, spent $48.8 million, and had $20.6 million in cash on hand, campaign-finance records showed. Meanwhile, Collins raised $24.1 million, spent $22.3 million, and had $4.4 million in cash on hand by the end of 2020's third quarter on September 30.

In 2020's third fundraising quarter, Gideon brought in a $39.4 million haul compared with just $8.3 million raised for Collins. Gideon's fundraising performance made her one of three Democratic Senate candidates — along with Mark Kelly in Arizona and Jaime Harrison in South Carolina — to break the quarterly fundraising record for Senate campaigns set by Texas' Beto O'Rourke in 2018.

What the polling said

Gideon led Collins in all but one public poll released this year, according to FiveThirtyEight's polling tracker.

The most recent poll, conducted by SurveyUSA, found Gideon leading Collins by 2 points in a head-to-head matchup, 51% to 49%, among likely voters. A recent survey conducted by Colby College found Gideon leading Collins by 4 points, 45% to 41%, among likely voters.

A Suffolk University poll conducted from September 17 to 20 found Gideon leading Collins by 7 points, 49% to 42%. And a New York Times/Siena College poll conducted from September 11 to 16 found Gideon ahead by 5 points, 49% to 45%.

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