U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, talks on the Senate floor about her predecessor, U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith. C-Span

Forty-eight years ago, a four-term Republican U.S. senator from Maine, famed for her courage and independence, came up short on Election Day against an eager but lesser-known challenger who sent her into retirement.

Margaret Chase Smith, still widely admired in her home state and across the nation a quarter-century after her death, lost to Democrat Bill Hathaway, a Lewiston lawyer and congressman, who gently warned her during the campaign that people “need a rejuvenation of ideas from time to time” among their leaders.

If Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins winds up disappointed after the ballots are cast on Nov. 3, one of the often-overlooked reasons may be that voters simply grew restless.

Republican U.S. Sen. William Frye of Lewiston about 1900. Gridley Barrows Collection, Lewiston Public Library

In the 200-year history of Maine, only two senators ever won a fifth term: Republicans William Frye of Lewiston and Turner-born Eugene Hale, who each finished their last term in the Senate in 1911. Frye, who helped found Bates College and served for 15 years as president pro tempore of the Senate, died in office, while Hale had a chance to enjoy his final years in a book-filled home in Maine.

Hale and Frye, though, secured their seats through the state Legislature. The voters of Maine, who didn’t start electing their U.S. senators until a little more than a century ago, have never given a senator a fifth term.

Until Collins opted to run again this year, Smith was the only Maine senator who ever sought one.

Neither of the other two Maine senators who served fourth terms, Republican Frederick Hale and Democrat Ed Muskie, ran for reelection.

Smith wasn’t ready to give up her seat in 1972. She insisted she could use her seniority and experience to deliver more than ever for Maine.

Like Collins this year, Smith at the time ranked second in seniority on the powerful Appropriations Committee, never missed a vote and took pride in her reputation for independence.

The two also shared a proclivity for delaying decisions on key votes, sometimes attracting attention to themselves in the process as supposed swing votes on important decisions, and for embracing civility and bipartisanship in their legislative style.

Even so, the campaign this year has been anything but civil, on both sides, and as bitterly partisan as Maine has ever seen.

Collins faces three opponents in the Nov. 3 election: Democrat Sara Gideon, the state House speaker from Freeport; retired Solon educator Lisa Savage, an independent with roots in the Green Party; and Max Linn, a businessman from Bar Harbor.

For months, polls have shown Gideon with a small lead in the ranked-choice voting race, part of a national trend that has seen Republican senators on the ballot this year across the country struggling to fend off Democratic challengers who hope to ride a blue wave to victory.

HOW THIS YEAR’S RACE FITS IN

Collins has fended off three challengers to her Senate seat – in 2002, 2008 and 2014 – coming out on top by at least 16% overall, capturing every Maine county and even winning most of its cities, which are generally Democratic strongholds.

Halfway through her fourth term, in 2017, she ranked as the most popular senator in the country, respected nationally for her willingness to reach across the aisle.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, Rod Stewart and Cyndi Lauper pose for a selfie in Bangor. Submitted photo

But her political fortunes changed quickly.

Some of it is her own doing. An obvious turning point came in late 2017 when she endorsed a $2 trillion tax cut that mostly helped corporations and wealthy Americans. In 2018, she voted to put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. Both were controversial votes, bound to anger many Mainers no matter which way she chose.

Some of her shrinking stature, though, is the result of the changing nature of American politics, which has grown ever nastier, money-driven and national in scope.

President Donald Trump, the Republican standard bearer, is unpopular in Maine, if the polls bear any resemblance to reality. Stuck in an uncomfortable middle, Collins has refused to endorse him or to say anything about whom she plans to vote for in the presidential race.

In 2016, for the first time in modern political history, the winner in every state’s Senate contest hailed from the same party as each state’s voters’ choice for president, Alan I. Abramowitz recently noted for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“There is every reason to expect that the 2020 Senate elections will continue this trend,” Abramowitz said.

For Collins, that trend is bad news.

By Abramowitz’s figuring, based on presidential race polling, Gideon should win Maine by about 12 points, roughly similar to the results Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is expected to post in the state.

Senate races haven’t always been so tied to presidential outcomes.

In 1972, Republican President Richard Nixon won in a landslide, but the GOP fared poorly in Senate elections nationally, with four of the party’s incumbents tossed from office, including Smith.

One of the newcomers that year? Biden, who knocked out Republican incumbent Caleb Boggs in a tight race in Delaware.

In Maine, Nixon gathered 61% of the vote as he cruised to an easy victory. Smith secured 47% of the total.

COLLINS AND MARGARET CHASE SMITH

When Collins is on the Senate floor, giving a speech, casting a vote or listening to colleagues debate the issues the day, she proudly uses the exact same desk as Smith.

“What a wonderful role model she was to me,” Collins once said on the Senate floor.

Collins, who hailed from a family enmeshed in local politics in Caribou, first met Smith when, as a high school senior, she won a spot in the Senate Youth Program, sponsored by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.

At the age of 18, she boarded a plane in Caribou one winter day in 1971 and headed to the nation’s capital for a close-up view of the Senate, a place far removed from her little hometown near the Canadian border.

During that trip, Smith, the only woman senator, set aside some time to talk with her. It turned into a two-hour discussion of everything from the military to jobs, Collins recalled years later.

One of Smith’s messages that came through loud and clear was the importance of “standing tall for what you believe in,” Collins said.

“That pivotal meeting,” Collins said, “was the beginning of my journey to the Senate.”

U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine, walks outside the Capitol in Washngton, D.C. on June 14, 1950. Associated Press/Herbert K. Smith

SMITH’S SENATE CAREER

Smith, who always wore a single red rose, captured a Senate seat in 1948, the first time a woman held one without succeeding her husband.

Shortly after, when a Senate colleague from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, launched an almost completely fictitious assault on supposed communists within the federal government in 1950, Smith rose on the floor to denounce him.

In one of the most famous speeches in American history, Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” assailed McCarthy’s “irresponsible sensationalism.”

“I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear,” Smith said, words that have been repeated often in the decades that followed. Collins cites them occasionally.

Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to be placed in nomination for the presidency at a major political party’s convention in 1964, losing out on the nomination to a Senate colleague from Arizona, Barry Goldwater. U.S. Senate Historical Office

Smith ran for president in 1964, though she refused campaign donations and skipped most campaigning to make sure she didn’t break her long streak of never missing any votes in the Senate. She didn’t get far, but she was nominated at the Republican convention, the first time a woman from a major party got even that far.

Farmington native Peter Mills, whose entire family was close to Smith, said in an interview for the Muskie Archives at Bates College in Lewiston that Smith “was not an originator, she was a person who reacted to things that she saw going on around her and she studied carefully, and she made decisions that were perhaps more passive.”

“She never was a person who tried to organize others in political activity toward achieving some common goal the way, you know, Ed Muskie did,” Mills said, “so there was a real difference in style and achievement.”

Paul Cote, a former Lewiston judge and school board chairman, said for a Muskie Archives interview that Smith “wasn’t a shy lady. She would be swinging away with the best of them, talking about all sorts of issues. And in those days, she was in the Senate Armed Services, and she had an awful lot of impact, a lot of wallop.”

In the Senate, Smith championed the space program, cheered on the Vietnam War and openly lusted for victory in the Cold War, coming perilously close at times to urging a real war with the Soviet Union.

She recognized that “if I am to be remembered in history, it will not be because of legislative accomplishments,” but rather for speaking out to condemn McCarthy at a time when senators were “paralyzed with fear” that countering him would lead to their political demise.

As it turned out, taking on McCarthy had nothing to do with her defeat.

THE 1972 CAMPAIGN

Heading into the race for a fifth term, Smith had a few of her toughest years in politics, with hip surgery for herself and a trusted aide’s heart attack disrupting her long record of casting every vote — health issues that made her seem older and frailer. At the time, Hathaway was 48; Smith was 74.

A screenshot of Bill Hathaway debating Margaret Chase Smith on Maine Public in 1972.

Even so, as U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine put it in a 2009 interview with Bowdoin College’s oral history project about former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, everybody thought Hathaway “was absolutely crazy” to challenge her because Smith was an icon, a heroine, a national figure of immense stature.

Hathaway treated her gently, always polite, while running a $200,000 campaign that included television and radio advertising. He scurried around Maine day after day, talking to voters about all sorts of issues and concerns.

Rick Barton, who worked on Hathaway’s campaign, told the Muskie Archives that Hathaway’s campaign was “highly individualistic, very much person to person, and extremely positive regarding Mrs. Smith.”

Hathaway told his staff “to never say anything about her and if we did it was always Senator Smith or Mrs. Smith,” Barton recalled. “It was essentially a campaign of an attractive alternative.”

Smith, meanwhile, stayed mostly in Washington and came back to Maine only on weekends until the final days of the race. She spent less than $14,000 and had no presence on television and made clear her disdain for it. She didn’t even have an office in Maine for constituent work.

King, who worked for Hathaway, said Smith “decided not to campaign. She did nothing. She didn’t come back to Maine, she didn’t buy any television ads, she literally didn’t spend a dollar on the campaign. (She) basically said, ‘The people of Maine know who I am and I don’t need to remind them,’ or something like that.”

“And it came across in several ways. One, it came across as kind of arrogant; she’s taking us for granted. But two, it left the false impression that maybe she really was out of it, by not showing up, by not participating, by not making speeches,” King said.

Margaret Chase Smith campaign poster for one of her re-election campaigns.

Gideon said that after 24 years in Congress, “there’s this degree to which a senator seems more committed to Washington than to Maine,” something she said probably had an impact on Smith’s career and may hurt Collins. They can start, she said, “to seem more away than home.”

Maine Gov. Janet Mills, interviewed in 1999 for the Muskie Archives, was close to Smith her entire life.

She said that in 1972, Smith “lost points on the Vietnam War, I think, and, in a lot of people’s minds. And I think she, it was an issue in the Hathaway election, and she didn’t seem to understand what was going on.”

An incident at Colby College in Waterville left her looking out-of-touch as well when she claimed U.S. troops were not operating in Laos, on the border of Vietnam, until a student who’d served there, Brownie Carson, got up at a public meeting and told her he’d been there.

King said Hathaway “won basically because people felt, ‘We like Margaret, but she’s had her time and she’s probably too old and this seems like a nice, young guy.’ And he had some wonderful advertisements that were very down-to-earth. He was a very, was and is, a very down-to-earth guy, and easy to like, funny and amiable and smart.”

Nobody could accuse Collins, 67, of ignoring the political necessity of advertising during this year’s race. Nor has she stayed away from Maine, though she has been careful not to miss any Senate votes since taking office in 1997.

“My voting streak was inspired by the legendary Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who did not miss a vote for 13 years until surgery forced her to do so,” Collins said last year.

After Collins passed her 7,000th consecutive vote, King, an independent, presented her a red rose like Smith always wore to mark the occasion.

AFTERMATH

Years later, Hathaway described his mother’s take on his victory of Smith.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” she told him.

Hathaway served a single term, during which he pushed through a measure to open the military service academies to women, before he lost the seat to Republican William Cohen, another independent-minded, middle-of-the-road Mainer.

One of Cohen’s aides? Collins. She wound up as staff director of a subcommittee that Cohen chaired.

When Cohen gave up his seat in 1997 to become President Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, Collins won the open seat she has held ever since.

A 1971 letter from U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith to 18-year-old Sue Collins of Caribou, which hangs on a wall in Collins’ U.S. Senate office. Submitted photo

On Feb. 15, 1971, near the end of her long career in the Senate, Smith wrote a letter to “Sue Collins” that thanked her for her “thoughtful note” written after their talk together at the Capitol.

Half a century later, it’s in a frame, hanging on the wall of Collins’ ornate office, a thin thread to a long history tying her to her legendary predecessor.

Collins, Gideon and every Mainer will find out soon what significance, if any, Smith’s experience in 1972 offers today.

Collins will either be the first Maine senator to win a fifth term since voters began picking senators more than 100 years ago, a serious historic milestone, or she’ll return home to pick up the pieces.

After losing her Senate seat, Smith spent 23 years teaching and overseeing construction of a library in Skowhegan to house her papers. She lived to the age of 97, the last living senator born in the 19th century.

By the time the former senator died in 1995, with her loss in 1972 a nearly forgotten footnote in a storied career, Smith was among the most revered names in Maine politics.

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