Sen. Susan Collins speaks to supporters around midnight at an election night event outside of the Hilton Garden Inn in Bangor. Collins said it was going to be a long night but she was encouraged by the results. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Republican Sen. Susan Collins was leading Democratic challenger Sara Gideon early Wednesday in a record-setting U.S. Senate race with national implications.

With 85 percent of precincts reporting shortly after 2:30 a.m., Collins held a 51 percent to 43 percent advantage over Gideon while independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn were trailing far behind at 5 percent and 2 percent, respectively. Collins had led Gideon, who is speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, throughout the night but saw the gap shrink as more populous, left-leaning communities in southern and coastal Maine reported their results.

The major question hanging over both campaigns early Wednesday, however, was whether Collins could stay above 50 percent as results from the outstanding towns were added to the mix. If neither Collins nor Gideon win with a majority during the initial vote tally, the race will require a ranked-choice re-tabulation, which would delay final results for at least a week in a race that could affect which party controls the U.S. Senate next year.

Around midnight, Collins addressed supporters and the media outside the Hilton Garden Inn in Bangor, where her campaign had been hosting a private party in an indoor ballroom. Speaking from a stage set up outdoors and surrounded by heat lamps, Collins thanked supporters outside, saying it would be a long night but that she was encouraged by the results. The four-term incumbent noted victories in towns such as Wells, Sanford, Lewiston, Auburn and Standish.

“Thank you to all the residents in all those towns and others too,” Collins said. “We’re doing really well but I know it’s not over until it’s over and we’re waiting for the rest of the vote totals.”

Rachel Levitan, a campaign team member, waits for results at the election night headquarters for U.S. Senate Democratic candidate Sara Gideon at The Westin Portland Harborview late Tuesday. Staff photo by Derek Davis

With COVID-19 cases surging in Maine and across the country, Gideon’s campaign opted for an even lower-profile election-watch gathering at the Westin Harborview in Portland. The Democrat invited media to a physically distanced event but did not appear herself. Instead, the campaign released a statement just before 1 a.m. pledging to ensure every vote is counted in the coming days.

“An unprecedented number of Mainers cast their ballots in this year’s U.S. Senate race, and from the Mainers who cast their ballots to the volunteers at the polls, we are so grateful to everyone who participated in this crucial election,” Gideon campaign manager Amy Mesner said in a statement. “It’s clear this race will not be called tonight and we are prepared to see it through to the finish. Over the coming days, we will make sure that every Mainer has their voice heard in this election.”

Maine’s U.S. Senate race has received national attention as Democrats attempted to flip the seat as part of their push to retake the Senate. Outside groups have spent more than $100 million on the race, much of it on negative advertising attacking either candidate.

The campaigns had anticipated a long — and potentially inconclusive — night as local election clerks processed unprecedented numbers of votes, many of them cast via absentee ballot because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen. Susan Collins tells supporters she is encouraged the voting results, noting victories in cities and towns such as Wells, Sanford, Lewiston, Auburn and Standish. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

As expected, Gideon won many of the left-leaning towns in York County, the Greater Portland area and in Midcoast Maine by comfortable margins — towns such as Biddeford, Kennebunkport, Westbrook, Cumberland, Brunswick, Camden and Belfast.

In the Democratic stronghold of Portland, Gideon trounced the Republican incumbent by winning 67.5 percent compared to 20.8 percent for Collins. Savage, a Green Independent who ran on a platform of “Medicare for All” and a “demilitarized Green New Deal,” received 10.9 percent in Portland while the conservative Linn received less than 1 percent.

But Gideon had not performed as well as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in some towns, complicating her ability to overcome Collins’ sizable victory margins in more rural areas of interior, eastern and northern Maine.

In Kennebunkport, for instance, Biden received nearly double President Trump’s support with 1,777 votes, while Gideon received 1,471 votes compared to 1,200 for Collins. Likewise, in Damariscotta, Biden led Trump 960 to 463 while Gideon defeated Collins but by a smaller margin of 800 to 601.

Collins defeated Gideon in Lewison, Auburn, Bethel, Fryeburg and Lubec — all towns that went soundly for Biden over Trump.

Earlier Tuesday evening, during an upbeat 15-minute speech to her supporters outside the Bangor hotel, Collins touted her work on the Paycheck Protection Program, a forgivable loan program for small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.”

“I knew this would be a tough race,” said Collins, who is facing the toughest re-election campaign of her 24-year Senate career. “My opponent certainly has thrown everything at me but the kitchen sink. In fact I think that’s coming next. The other side thought they could come to Maine and just run negative ads, dump loads and loads, millions of dollars, and just buy this Senate seat. But is that the Maine way? No, it certainly is not.”

Of course, as anyone who has watched television in Maine or checked their mailbox in recent months can attest. the negativity has been double-sided in what is likely to be a $200 million Senate race,

The dynamics of the race could shift further as additional towns report results. And if neither Collins nor Gideon surpass the 50 percent threshold on the final vote count, ballots from every polling place across Maine will be transported to Augusta for an instant run-off using Maine’s ranked-choice voting process. In such a scenario, the ranked-choice computer algorithms will eliminate the last-place finisher and award their supporters’ votes to whoever was their second choice if they ranked their ballot. If no one has passed the 50 percent plus one vote threshold, the process will be repeated with the third-place finisher.

Gideon, who is currently speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, entered Election Day with a consistent lead in the polls as she sought to tie Collins to President Trump — despite Collins’ repeated refusal to take a position on the president’s reelection — and cast Maine’s race as a pivotal battle in the national fight over control of the Senate.

But Collins stayed close to Gideon in those polls, despite being out-spent more than 2:1 as of mid-October. Political action committees and other groups from outside of Maine have flooded Maine with more than $100 million in spending on the race, fueling a nonstop and largely negative television advertising campaign

After being bombarded with months of messaging, much of it in the form of attack ads, voters finally got their chance to weigh in on a race that could have major national implications.

In Bangor on Tuesday, Russell and Tanya Keith, both Republicans, are long time Collins supporters and both voted for her. Russell Keith, a 60-year-old former boiler operator at Lincoln Paper & Tissue, said Collins’ support for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was a deciding factor for him this election cycle as was her consistent support for mill workers before the facility closed in 2013.

“Eventually the mill went down but she really did what she could. She was behind us 100 percent,” Keith said.

The couple also said they support Collins because she is from Maine, while Gideon is originally from Rhode Island.

“At least Susan Collins is from Maine and knows our Maine values,” said Tanya Keith.

But Cora Bishop, 24, a behavioral health professional, said she was turned off by Collins’ vote to confirm Kavanaugh.

“It wasn’t necessarily that Sara Gideon has proven herself, it’s more like Susan Collins has disproven herself,” said Bishop. “Go with something you don’t know rather than something bad.”

Gideon, 48, has served as Maine’s House Speaker for the past four years after holding in a junior leadership post during the previous two years. A mother of three school-aged children, Gideon first ran for a town council seat in Freeport and was elected a few years later to represent the area in the Maine House, beginning a quick ascent through the ranks of Democratic politics in Maine.

Collins, 67, has served 24 years in the Senate after winning a hard-fought race in 1996 to fill the seat of one of her mentors, former Republican Sen. Bill Cohen. A moderate Republican, Collins has been reelected with ever-growing margins in each of her successive races thanks, in part, to the support she garnered from Democrats and independents as well as members of her own party. She won her 2014 reelection campaign, for instance, with 68 percent of the vote.

But those dynamics shifted dramatically in 2016 with the election of Trump as he worked with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to pursue a more conservative agenda, particularly in filling judicial appointments.

Collins’ pivotal vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in October 2018 infuriated Maine Democrats as well as reproductive rights advocates who had previously viewed her as one of their few Republican allies in Congress. As soon as Collins announced her decision on Kavanaugh, potential 2020 challengers began emerging – including Gideon, who said that vote prompted her to seriously consider a run for the first time.

Gideon handily defeated two more progressive Democratic contenders, Betsy Sweet and Bre Kidman, during the July 14 primary elections held in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The race between Collins and Gideon is, by far, the most expensive campaign in Maine history largely because of the massive amounts of out-of-state money flow to – or against – the two candidates. With control of the Senate at stake in this election, the national Democratic and Republican parties as well as dozens of outside organizations have funneled more than $110 million into Maine’s race.

That unprecedented sum, combined with the nearly $100 million raised by the two candidates as of mid-October, means spending in the race is likely to be up to ten times higher than the 2018 2nd Congressional District race that was previously Maine’s most expensive race.

Throughout her campaign, Gideon has campaigned on the message that “Susan Collins has changed” during her 24-year career and no longer adequately represents the interests of most Mainers.

Gideon and her campaign have pointed to Collins’ support for Kavanaugh, the 2017 Republican tax cuts bill and her opposition to the articles of impeachment against Trump to accuse her of voting with the president and McConnell when it counts but against them when her dissent was less consequential.

Constantly reminding voters about the national implications of Maine’s Senate race, Gideon often said that a vote for Collins is a vote to keep McConnell in the power seat as Senate majority leader. In recent weeks, the Democrat has also adopted the slogan “Health care is on the ballot” as she points to Republicans’ repeated efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Collins, for her part, campaigned on her reputation as bipartisan dealmaker often involved in critical negotiations in Washington. She pointed her role in working toward a compromise to end the 2013 government shutdown, as chairwoman of a homeland security committee after the September 2001 terrorist attacks and an influential voice on issues affecting seniors.

The Republican has also pointed to her co-authorship of the Paycheck Protection Program that has funneled more than $2 billion in forgivable loans to roughly 28,000 small businesses in Maine during the coronavirus pandemic. In contrast, Collins and her campaign have waged a “Sara did nothing” offensive against Gideon, accusing Maine’s House speaker of focusing almost exclusively on her election bid rather than on helping Mainers during the pandemic.

After 24 years in the Senate, Collins has also stated that she would be in line for chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee — one of two congressional committees that essentially holds the federal purse strings — should she be reelected and Republicans retain control of the chamber. That would put her in a position to help steer funding to Maine, whether for new Navy ships at Bath Iron Works or assistance for rural areas.

Staff writers Rachel Ohm and Penelope Overton contributed to this report.


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