Why did the Democrats fail to unseat Susan Collins?

(Photo: BangorDailyNews)

By Zara Berry – Contributor

Susan Collins’ Senate seat should have been easing picking for the Democrats in 2020. On paper it was the perfect storm. The incumbent was a Republican in a Democrat-leaning state which Hillary Clinton won by 3 points in 2016 (although Donald Trump did win 1 electoral vote), who had publicly allied with the Trump administration on key national issues, such as Trump’s impeachment and the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. Additionally, her challenger was a well-liked state representative (serving as Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives) with bucket-loads of donor money fuelling her campaign. Democrats had made the Maine senate seat one of their top targets in 2020, and had polling leads of up to 5 points mere weeks before the election, so why did they fail? The main issue at stake was whether voters would judge Collins based on what she had done for them as a State or what she had done on the national stage, this decided the election. 

Susan Collins was very well known to long-term Maine residents. She had served as a Senator since 1997, and before that she served in the governor’s cabinet before running for Governor herself. She has a long reputation for bipartisanship, a rare quality in modern US politics, and is frequently mentioned as one of the most moderate Republicans in the senate. She won admiration from some Democrats for her work in creating the compromise that would end the 2013 government shutdown and her crucial vote to kill the ‘skinny repeal’ Health Care Freedom Act in 2017 (which was estimated to leave 16 million Americans without health insurance). However, she lost much of this goodwill in 2018 when she voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, a move which outraged many Democrat voters across the country, who saw it as her ignoring the voices of female victims. But, whilst she had a changing national profile, to Maine residents she was a well-liked, dependable Senator who did a lot for the State. Many small rural towns in Maine have followed the nationwide trend of industries departing, leaving declining towns in their wake. Many such towns have dependably voted for Susan Collins for years due to the good constituent services she had provided and the money she has brought to the State. It has long been Collins’ electoral strategy in the state to win these rural towns and more Northern parts of Maine while generally leaving the urban areas around Portland alone. So, all Collins’ had to do to retain her seat was convince these more rural areas and small towns that what she had done for the state was more important than her national profile. And this she did very well.

The main aim of the Democratic campaign was to tie Susan Collins to Donald Trump and make her national actions the focus of the campaign. They also needed to take away from Collins’ the moderate voters and independents who she had so reliably won for many years in Maine rural towns. To do this they nominated Sarah Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. They also poured external donor money into the state, Gideon raised around $69 million dollars. The Democrats needed to unseat Collins if they were to take the Senate. Hers was one of several seats the Democrats had been eyeing for some time, arguably ever since the Kavanaugh confirmation of 2018. The importance of controlling the Senate cannot be overstated, if your party also holds the White House it makes governing considerably easier as the Senate confirms appointment and ratifies treaties. Therefore, if the opposite occurs and the Senate and White House are held by different parties the Senate can be very effective at blocking the President’s agenda (as shown in the final years of the Obama administration). So, the Democrats’ desire for Collins’ seat cannot be overemphasised.

If they possessed this desire to take Collins’ seat, they had a good candidate and a mighty war chest of campaign money, why did the Democrats fail to unseat Collins? The main reason is they failed to win over the small towns and moderate voters of Maine. Their own electoral strategy often worked against them. The Democrats’ main tactic was to focus almost entirely on the national stage and Susan Collins’ actions there. This backfired quite spectacularly. Voters quickly tired of hearing all about how terrible Susan Collins was, how she was an enabler of the Trump presidency. They wanted to focus on the issues of Maine, not national politics, for them there was a different election this year for that (the Presidential one). They saw the Democrats as not knowing their audience and being far too heavy-handed in their advertising. This message problem cost the Democrats dearly. Another area where the Democrats’ strategy left them vulnerable was the quantity of outside donation. This gave Collins and her campaign an opening. It enabled them to portray Collins as the underdog against Gideon and the Democrats, who were portrayed as wealthy out-of-state interveners who didn’t care about Maine, with a candidate ‘from away’ (Gideon is from Rhode Island) backed by outsiders. Additionally, the barrage of campaign advertising simply turned off Maine voters, they saw it as outsiders trying to shove their views down their throats and in some cases trying to buy the election.

The failure to take Collins’ seat ties into a wider national trend of the Democrats just underperforming. They needed 4 seats to take an absolute majority in the chamber. So far, they’ve failed. While massive amounts of fundraising did have partial success in some races, such as those in Arizona and Colorado, generally they failed. The specific failure in Maine seems to have several causes, one is the power of Collins herself. Her moderate, pragmatic brand and bond with small-town Mainers served her well in this election. The other main factor was the Democrats knifing themselves with their strategy. While it may have seemed like a good idea to focus on the national stage where some of Collins’ weaknesses lay, their overemphasis on it instead disillusioned voters. In 6 years if the Democrats still possess the same desire to take the seat and if Collins is running for re-election again, the Democrats will need to focus on constructing a campaign that focuses on the issues of Maine first, national ones second. If they don’t, they will likely fail again particularly if there isn’t the above-average national electoral drive there has been this year.













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