Republican Sen. Susan Collins won Maine’s high-profile U.S. Senate race on Wednesday, defeating Democrat Sara Gideon in an intensely negative contest that saw unprecedented spending as part of the national battle for control in Washington.

Unofficial election results show Collins leading Gideon 51 percent to 42 percent, with 99 percent of precincts reporting. The two independents in the race, Lisa Savage and Max Linn, received 5 percent and 2 percent of the vote, respectively. Collins secured a fifth term in the Senate with a large enough margin to avoid a ranked-choice runoff that could have tipped the race toward Gideon and delayed a final outcome for at least a week.

On her path to victory, Collins outperformed President Trump in many communities, and she even defeated Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House, in a smattering of towns that went solidly for Democrat Joe Biden in the presidential contest.

In remarks to supporters and media outside the Hilton Garden Inn in Bangor, Collins publicly thanked Gideon for “a very gracious call” conceding the race before The Associated Press and other media outlets declared a winner. In a clear message, Collins took to the outdoor stage while Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” blared over the loudspeakers.

Collins later told reporters that people are tired of polarization and want to see Congress work together.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins addresses supporters and the media during a news conference at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bangor on Wednesday. Collins has won her fifth term in the Senate. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“I want to say to those Mainers who didn’t vote for me, I’m still your senator and I’m going to work to improve life for everyone in the state of Maine,” Collins said.

In addition to defying months of polling showing Gideon leading the race, Collins’ victory appears likely to complicate or outright foil Democrats’ hopes of winning control of the U.S. Senate. The national parties and outside groups funneled more than $100 million into Maine’s race, while the two front-runners’ campaigns were on track to surpass another $100 million in fundraising and spending – massive amounts for a state with roughly 1 million registered voters.

In remarks streamed live online, Gideon said she had called Collins to congratulate her and to pledge that she would “always be available to help serve the people of Maine.”

“While this election may be over, we have to work together to build a better future, one where everyone has access to health care they can afford, where we tackle our climate crisis head-on and where we restore our economy by prioritizing the hard-working people in our communities,” Gideon said. “I am proud of the campaign we ran and regardless of the result, together we built a movement that will help us make progress for years to come.”

Collins appears to have won the election not only by capturing clear majorities in hundreds of Maine’s more conservative, rural communities – as expected for the well-known Republican incumbent – but also by denying Gideon larger margins of victory in traditional Democratic strongholds.

Collins prevailed in some communities that chose Biden over Trump.

In the precincts of Lewiston and Auburn, for instance, Collins defeated Gideon 14,587 to 13,184 while Biden defeated Trump 16,049 to 12,612. Collins also bested Gideon in Bangor, Augusta, Bethel, Fryeburg and Lubec – all towns won by Biden.

In this still image from video released via YouTube by the Sara Gideon for Maine campaign, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Maine House speaker Sara Gideon, speaks on Wednesday in Portland, where she conceded Tuesday’s election to incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins. Sara Gideon for Maine via Associated Press

As expected, Gideon won many of the left-leaning towns in the Greater Portland area, coastal York County and in midcoast Maine by comfortable margins. In Portland, for instance, she won roughly 68 percent of the vote compared to Collins’ 21 percent, with Savage picking up 11 percent and Linn less than 1 percent.

But Collins won the vast majority of more conservative towns away from the coast and defeated Gideon by sizable margins in many rural areas. Gideon’s under-performance in relation to Biden in some towns also complicated her ability to overcome Collins’ sizable victory margins in more rural areas of interior, eastern and northern Maine.

Republicans in Maine and Washington, D.C., cheered Collins’ victory, which could cement a GOP majority in the chamber again next year.

“Throughout her career Senator Collins has delivered for the people of Maine and on Election Day the people of Maine delivered for her,” Demi Kouzounas, chairwoman of the Maine Republican Party, said in a statement. “While D.C. Democrats did their best to tip the scales of our elections with millions of out-of-state dollars, Mainers held the line and told the country that we can not be bought.”

It was a race like no other in Maine history – in terms of spending, negativity and national attention – and stood in stark contrast to Collins’ victories by wide margins in the past.

Soon after Collins’ October 2018 vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, it became clear that her seat would be a top priority for national Democrats as they sought to win control of the Senate. While Democrats had a lively primary process, Gideon was the immediate front-runner with the backing of the national party.

Throughout her well-financed campaign, Gideon attempted to chip away at Collins’ reputation as a moderate Republican by accusing her of voting too often with Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky or being unwilling to stand up against them. Gideon pointed to the Kavanaugh vote, Collins’ opposition to the articles of impeachment against Trump and her support for a controversial 2017 tax cuts bill that opened the door for a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

Collins, meanwhile, campaigned on her decades-long record in the Senate advocating for Maine issues as well as her reputation as a dealmaker able to work across the political aisle. Collins has also said she is next in line to take over the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, one of two powerful congressional committees that control the federal purse strings. Committee chairs are often successful at steering federal money to their home states.

But Collins also sought to distinguish herself from Gideon by pointing to her co-authorship of the Paycheck Protection Program that has funneled more than $2 billion in forgivable loans to businesses in Maine during the coronavirus pandemic. The Maine Legislature, meanwhile, has been largely sidelined during the pandemic as Gov. Janet Mills uses the executive authority granted during disasters.

Both Collins and Gideon relied on contributions from non-Maine residents to finance the vast majority of their campaigns. But the Collins campaign and its allies also repeatedly noted – both directly and indirectly – that Gideon is a Rhode Island native while the incumbent is from Aroostook County.

During her remarks to reporters in Bangor on Wednesday afternoon, Collins said she was disheartened by negative ads and attacks and the “seemingly endless flow of money coming into the state of Maine by people who really didn’t care about the state of Maine but were trying to flip control of the Senate.”

“That was very difficult to watch,” she said.

Out-of-state groups weren’t only targeting Collins, however, as organizations spent nearly $42 million to oppose Gideon, according to campaign finance tracking by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

And Collins’ own campaign bankrolled a constant stream of attack ads, mailers and social media messaging against Gideon, saying “Sara did nothing” to help Mainers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Collins’ campaign and its allies also waged a blistering campaign accusing the House speaker of failing to take swift action against a Democratic lawmaker accused of – but never charged with – inappropriate sexual relations with his students.

In the end, Collins said she thinks her reputation for bringing people together and delivering results for Maine people helped her secure a fifth term.

“Virtually everywhere in the state I could point to where I’ve made a difference,” she said.

Throughout the race Collins declined to say whether she would be voting for Trump in 2020 after publicly opposing him in 2016. Democrats and the Gideon campaign tried to use Collins’ refusals against her, even placing “Trump-Collins 2020” signs in areas of southern Maine in hopes of helping voters connect the senator with a president who was deeply unpopular in larger, liberal communities.

Collins again declined on Wednesday to say whom she supported for president in response to a reporter’s question about whether she voted for Trump.

“Nice try there,” Collins said. “As I’ve said all along, I’ve concentrated on my race.”

 

Staff Writer Rachel Ohm contributed to this report.


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