Maine’s Senate race and the extinction of New England Republicanism

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SOMETIMES SENATORS decide matters of national importance, such as confirming a Supreme Court justice, or whether to convict an impeached president. Sometimes their concerns are more prosaic. At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new bell tower in Auburn, Susan Collins, a Republican seeking a fifth term as Maine’s senator, reminds guests that she helped secure $246,000 for the surrounding infrastructure. The previous day in Waterville, Mike Roy, the city manager, said Ms Collins secured funding to help improve its centre.

Ms Collins’s Democratic opponent, Sara Gideon, the speaker of Maine’s House of Representatives, hopes that national concerns prevail. At an outdoor dinner beneath a tent in Farmington, she told the crowd that “we feel very left behind” by Ms Collins’s “decision...to side with” Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. She discussed the Supreme Court and health care, and won applause for deriding the amount of money in politics and proposing a lifetime ban on members of Congress becoming lobbyists. Mr Trump currently trails his Democratic opponent by more than 13 points in Maine, so Ms Gideon’s strategy—lashing Ms Collins to Mr Trump—makes sense. It also appears to be working: she leads Ms Collins, who won her last Senate race by 37 points, by 3.6. If that lead holds, Democrats will celebrate: they would probably need Ms Collins’s seat to retake the Senate. In time, they may also come to rue the extinction of her kind of Republican.

Maine tends to elect centrist senators. William Cohen, a Republican, served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet. Olympia Snowe, like Ms Collins, was a pro-choice Republican. Angus King, who serves with Ms Collins, is one of just two Independents in the Senate. And Ms Collins stresses her centrist credentials, often reminding Mainers that an annual study from Georgetown University has ranked her as the Senate’s most bipartisan member for seven consecutive years.

Ms Gideon argues that this reputation is outdated—that Ms Collins “has lost her way”, is “putting someone else’s interests above ours”, and has become a rubber-stamp for the right. Though no Senate Republican has voted with Mr Trump less often than Ms Collins, she has become famous, in a country split between two camps, for her habit of neither condemning nor supporting the president. Many Mainers are still cross about her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Teresa Forster, who drove down to Farmington from a nearby town to see Ms Gideon, had previously supported Ms Collins, but “I didn’t like her vote, and I didn’t like her apology. She’s trying to have it both ways.”

The backlash to that vote sparked a wave of donations. Even before Ms Gideon won the nomination, national liberal groups had raised millions for Ms Collins’s challenger. Ms Collins complains about out-of-state money, of which Ms Gideon has more, while Ms Gideon criticises Ms Collins for taking corporate donations, but both candidates keep writing cheques—with spending already reaching $100m, this race is the most expensive in Maine’s history.

Ms Gideon has made inroads among the sorts of independent-minded women who had long supported Ms Collins alongside Democratic candidates—in 2008, for instance, Barack Obama won Maine by 17 points, while Ms Collins saw off a Democratic challenger by 23—forcing Ms Collins to shore up her right flank. But she is heterodox, deliberative and socially liberal, making her an awkward fit for a Trumpified Republican Party.

Wave elections tend to wash party moderates out to sea. If Ms Collins is among the Republicans looking for a raft on November 4th, few Democratic tears will fall. But Mainers might miss what she does for them locally and the Senate her willingness to cross the aisle. The country might miss New England Republicanism.