Sara Gideon Bets on Polarization in Her Bid to Topple Susan Collins

Democratic Senate candidate Sara Gideon speaks to reporters after casting her ballot at the town hall in Freeport, Maine, October 14, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
In Maine’s closely watched Senate race, the incumbent’s unique brand of conciliation is put to the test.

The only Republican representing New England in Congress, Maine senator Susan Collins is locked in a tight reelection race this Tuesday against Sara Gideon, the speaker of the state’s House of Representatives.

The battle between Collins and Gideon, which has generated sustained national coverage, offers a window into polarization’s effects on American politics.

Susan Collins’s career in the Senate has been characterized by crisscrossing ideological lines. On a number of key votes, she has broken with her party. She was one of three Republicans who voted in favor of the 2009 stimulus bill at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, and she was one of three Republicans who voted against the “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act in July 2017. The second vote is particularly notable because this pseudo-repeal failed 49 to 51; had she voted the other way, it would have passed the Senate. Of course, Collins is not a partisan Democrat, so she often votes with her Republican colleagues, supporting many tax-cut bills and GOP presidential nominations. She has regularly voted for the confirmation of Democratic presidential nominations, too.

If Collins has campaigned and voted like a legislative wheeler-dealer, Sara Gideon has instead premised her campaign on sharper partisanship. Her time as speaker of the Maine House of Representatives has been characterized by bitter feuds with state Republicans; at one point, she accused them of engaging in “terrorism.” On many topics, she has signaled that she would be a reliable vote for the Left (compared with Collins’s mavericky relationship with the GOP). In one debate, for instance, Gideon refused to say whether she would have supported John Roberts’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Roberts  — the Republican Supreme Court nominee with the most Senate support in the past 30 years — was overwhelmingly confirmed, 78 to 22, and has not exactly been a right-wing firebrand on the bench. The only Supreme Court nominee Collins has voted against is Amy Coney Barrett — Collins said that there should no confirmation vote until after the election.

A clash over procedure makes this contrast between conciliation and polarization even more explicit. Collins has been fairly committed to maintaining the architecture of bipartisan cooperation in the Senate. In 2005, she was part of the “gang of 14” that successfully defused the nuclear option (in which a simple majority shuts down debate on a topic by overruling the standing rules of the Senate, which require 60 votes to end a filibuster). After Harry Reid led Senate Democrats to nuke the Senate filibuster for most nominations in 2013, Collins did vote with other Republicans to nuke the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations; Collins’s move was a response to a sustained partisan filibuster of the Neil Gorsuch nomination. However, after that, she and Delaware Democrat Chris Coons cobbled together a group of 61 senators in a joint statement pledging to protect the legislative filibuster. By contrast, Gideon has said she’d be open to nuking the legislative filibuster. Ending the filibuster for nominations fueled polarization in the Senate, and nuking it for legislation would probably further estrange political factions.

Gideon’s campaign may hope that the rising tide of polarization will lift her boat, too. Ticket-splitting is down across the country, and many of the Maine suburbanites who have soured on President Trump might vote against Susan Collins as well. Gideon’s bet on polarization has helped fill her campaign coffers with tens of millions of dollars — $69 million to the $27 million that Collins has raised — and polls suggest that she has a significant chance of winning on Tuesday. We’ll know soon whether the 2020 election offers a “return to normalcy” or a heightening of polarized conflict.