Democrats immediately targeted Collins for defeat this year, raising millions for an eventual opponent long before Gideon even entered the race. At Gideon’s events in the final weeks of the campaign, former Collins supporters invariably cited the Kavanaugh vote as a key factor in their decision to abandon her. She had lost even those who had known her for years—people like Marlene Viger, a retired nurse I met along with her niece, Debra Blais, at a “Supper With Sara” event in Rumford. Viger, a political independent, knows and likes Collins, and not just in the vague, impersonal way that a voter knows and trusts a politician she has long supported.
For years, the two women sat in adjacent seats at the University of Maine’s basketball games, cheering on the Black Bears and making small talk. Viger had voted for Collins every time she was on the ballot, until this year. “The Kavanaugh vote really turned us away,” Viger told me at a Gideon campaign event in October. Her voice was tinged not with anger or disgust, but with disappointment. “I actually feel sorry for her, because I know she has a difficult job and position,” she said. “It’s really sad.” As for Collins’s opposition to Barrett, she said it couldn’t make up for her Kavanaugh vote, or for the other times she hadn’t fought Trump hard enough. “It’s too late,” Viger said. “It’s an afterthought.”
Yet if there were plenty of voters who couldn’t forgive Collins for her Kavanaugh vote, there were others who did. One of them was Karen Boucher, a 46-year-old schoolteacher and political independent who cast an early ballot in Auburn, a town that narrowly went for Trump in 2016. She quickly told me she had voted for Biden, but when I asked whom she supported for Senate, she was almost apologetic: “This is going to sound awful, but I actually voted for Susan Collins.” After Collins’s vote for Kavanaugh, Boucher assumed that she would be supporting her opponent this year. She went back and forth several times, she said, but ultimately she returned to Collins based on her experience and because she was turned off by Gideon’s negative attacks. “I don’t agree with her choices, but she has tenure,” Boucher said.
The tallies across the state suggest that there were more voters like Karen Boucher than the polls favoring Gideon had indicated. Unlike Republican incumbents in Iowa and North Carolina, who benefited from a stronger-than-expected showing by Trump, Collins won a state that swung heavily away from the president; Maine gave Biden a double-digit win after going for Clinton by just three points in 2016. In Wells, a small coastal town in the state’s liberal southeast corner, Biden won by 15 points, while Collins won by nine.
Collins had amassed a similar coalition back in 2008, when she and Barack Obama each carried about 60 percent of the Maine vote. But the state’s politics, like the nation’s, have shifted. Wedged into the northeast corner of the country, Maine long seemed like a buffer against national political trends. As polarization increased through the 1990s and into the 2000s, Maine elected and reelected Collins and Senator Olympia Snowe, a duo who earned a reputation as two of the least partisan members of the Senate. Independent and third-party candidates are often major factors in the state’s elections, and when Snowe retired in 2012, voters chose an independent former governor, Angus King, who decided to caucus with the Democrats only after his victory.