BLUE HILL, Maine — When you saw an article about Maine in the national press over the last year, it was usually a report that the state’s senior senator, Susan Collins, was toast. Yes, she’d won re-election in 2014 by 37 points, but that was before her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The “ByeBye, Susan” bumper stickers started appearing not long after. The political reporters all found their way to the same trope: Ms. Collins hadn’t changed, but Maine had.
In recent months, Ms. Collins led in not a single poll until the one that mattered on Nov. 3. But the news out of the Pine Tree State this week isn’t just that Ms. Collins easily won re-election, but that across the state, people split their votes. Jared Golden, a Democrat, won re-election in Maine’s massive Second Congressional District, while President Trump also took the district and its one electoral vote (as he had in 2016). The two men had strikingly similar vote totals. Mr. Golden is an impressive young politician. A 38-year-old ex-Marine (combat tours of both Iraq and Afghanistan), he actually started his career working for Ms. Collins on Capitol Hill. But it was as a centrist Democrat that he entered Congress himself. One of his first acts in the House was to vote against Nancy Pelosi for the speakership. He’s bucked his party on issues like gun control and impeachment. Mainers like independence.
And they apparently don’t like being told what to do. The 2020 Senate race was by a long shot the most expensive in Maine history. Ms. Collins raised $27 million: five times what she spent in 2014. And her opponent, Sara Gideon, raised nearly $70 million. Thanks to the outside money that poured into the state, at least $120 million was spent on advertising. The Bangor Daily News was surely ecstatic to report a 3,000 percent increase in political ad spending over 2014, but for many months I could not go online without being confronted with an attack on one or the other candidate’s record in deeply misleading terms. It was disgusting and, worse, dispiriting.
There has always been plenty to like about Senator Collins no matter your party preference. Her campaign ran ads that caught the flavor of this Caribou-born politician, and it highlighted some very Maine things about her. In four terms in the Senate, for instance, she has never missed a vote, said one commercial. (She finally missed one last month, according to GovTrack). She may have made a contentious vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, but she also gave a common sense-filled 40-minute speech explaining her decision. It was pretty hard to square the Susan Collins who you regularly see around Maine with the figure in the pocket of Donald Trump and rich corporations you saw in her adversary’s ads.
And those very same ads turned her opponent from the accomplished speaker of the Maine House into simply: not Susan Collins. I had a nice chat a few weeks back with a clipboard-carrying Gideon-advocate who wandered up my driveway to make sure I was voting. She kept coming around to the point that it wasn’t enough for Joe Biden to defeat Mr. Trump, but that the Senate had to be taken back from Senator Mitch McConnell. I kept on about the foolishness of nationalizing local races. The question had to be who was best for Maine; any concerns about Mr. McConnell were the sole and exclusive property of the people of Kentucky. I also complained that she was really asking me to vote against Ms. Collins rather than for Ms. Gideon, who seemed to have lost her political personality when she became the standard bearer of a constant negative media blitz. Even the compelling woman in my driveway agreed that Ms. Gideon wasn’t coming across as the most authentic candidate. She, like everyone I know, had preferred the more progressive Betsy Sweet in the Democratic primary. It was a good conversation: serious, informed, respectful.
Yet two days before the vote, a car with out-of-state plates came up my driveway and two more Gideon champions hopped out and began ringing the bell and pounding unstintingly on two separate doors to our house. My wife was more than miffed as our youngest was napping, and asked the canvassers just what in the hell was wrong with them. They answered by asking my wife if she had heard of the Sara Gideon campaign. Dear Katherine suggested they buzz off and was pretty annoyed by the whole encounter. She’d already decided her vote but pointed out that such an off-key visit could easily have swayed her view.
It snowed overnight Monday, and there were still flurries as we stood in line to vote the next morning. Everyone was subdued. No advocacy. No shouting. Just voters doing their socially distanced civic duty and saying a good morning to neighbors from behind masks. About 2,000 people voted in our town of Blue Hill. Mr. Biden won two-thirds of this vote (66 percent to Mr. Trump’s 32). Mr. Golden got 72 percent. But Ms. Gideon only took 55 percent. Very little straight ticket voting here. In the wider county, the Democratic state senator won easily, as did the Republican county commissioner.
The statewide results should give all Mainers something to be proud of, no matter their satisfaction or chagrin at any particular outcome. Voters here were able to distinguish local interests from national ones: to decide for themselves who could serve Maine best at each level of the government. Maine turned 200 in this challenging year. She hasn’t changed that much after all.
Robert Messenger was executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
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