Susan Collins trails Sara Gideon, voters want delay on RBG seat
Veteran GOP Sen. Susan Collins remains in a tight contest with her Democratic challenger in the closely watched Maine Senate race, according to a poll released Friday by Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
Democrat Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House, leads with 45% among the 847 registered voters who were asked for their first ranked choice.
Collins was viewed as the first choice for 41% of the respondents with 6% indicating they remain undecided with a 3.4% margin of error.
“It’s tight, and it’s going to be nip and tuck right down to the wire if you ask me,” said Dan Shea, a Colby College political science professor and lead researcher on the poll.
But the survey found a dramatic partisan gulf on the question of giving President Donald Trump’s third nomination to the high court a vote in the Senate.
Ninety-two percent of Democrats said Collins should wait, and 60% of independents agreed, but among Republicans just 24% said the four-term senator should wait until either Trump or Biden takes office in January.
Seventy-percent of Maine GOP voters said Collins should vote as soon as possible on Trump’s nominee, whom the president said he will name Saturday.
The Pine Tree State contest is coveted by Democrats as a seat to flip in their mission to win back the Senate in 2020. Republicans currently hold a 53-47 majority.
“Collins was once one of the most well-liked senators in the country dropping from a 68% approval rating to the mid-40s,” Shea told USA TODAY. “The question is has Susan changed or has Maine changed, and it’s a little bit of both as she’s shifted more to the Republican side.”
Collins, who was first elected in 1996, is considered one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbent senators on the 2020 map largely due to Trump’s unpopularity in the state.
She has been critical of the president at times in the past, but Democrats have anchored her to high-profile votes such as confirming Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2017 and voting to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial earlier this year.
Other snapshots of the race in recent weeks have shown Gideon with a significantly larger lead over Collins.
A Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month showed Gideon up by 12% with more than half of likely voters polled backing her bid. That double-digit margin was the largest lead for the House speaker in any publicly released survey during the race.
But Shea said that should be considered an outlier given other surveys, adding that their research has shown a race within the three to four percentage point range for months.
Collins, for her part, has long cast herself as an independent voice who values common sense and compromise. But her brand of moderate Republican politics has lost favor in Washington.
“She is the last of the Yankee Republicans at the federal level,” Shea said.
Biden comfortably ahead in Maine
The Colby College poll showed Collins’ biggest problem is in the White House as multiple surveys have shown views of Trump are the number one predictor for who voters prefer in the Senate race.
Asked to use a school grading system, 48% of Maine voters rated the president’s handling of the response to the coronavirus as an “F” for failing. That’s compared to 10% who gave Trump a “C” for average and 18% who rated it as an “A” for excellent.
Trump is also being battered in the head-to-head presidential race against Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who holds a comfortable 50-39 statewide lead according to the survey.
A bright spot for Republicans is that Maine is one of two states in the country where it awards its Electoral College votes based on who wins in each congressional district.
The Colby poll showed Biden and Trump in a dead heat for the state’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers a vast rural area in northern Maine. There, the former vice president is netting support from 46% of the respondents versus 43% for Trump.
Trump won that district’s lone electoral vote in 2016, and he has been making overtures to the seafood industry to court voters in the region. But the Biden campaign has also been making investments in the area to try to flip the district given the possibility of an Electoral College nail-biter on November 3.
“There are a number of scenarios where one electoral vote could actually make the difference and decide the presidency,” Shea said.
Maine wants to wait to fill RBG’s seat
Collins was one of only two GOP senators – along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska –who rejected the idea of voting on a nominee to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before the Nov. 3 election.
“She’s a real tough spot with the ire from the right by opposing this,” Shea said. “But more importantly I’m convinced that if Collins didn’t make that statement there would have been such an outpouring of anger among the left that she would have been in very deep trouble.”
A day after Ginsburg’s death last week Collins issued a statement saying Republicans should apply the same standard when they blocked former President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court months before the 2016 presidential election.
“Given the proximity of the presidential election… I do not believe that the Senate should vote on the nominee prior to the election,” she said.
Senate Republicans are coalescing around filling the seat with a more conservative justice, which seems more than likely after Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said he supports a confirmation vote before the election.
The polling shows that a lot of Mainers think Collins works too hard to be on both sides of controversial issues, he said, and that she comes off as “too calculating” to many voters.
Collins is losing independents and swing Democrats while being unable to attract the bulk of Maine’s Trump loyalists, Shea said.
“She is a bellwether of the advent of hyper-partisanship that is transforming our country,” he said. “Now she’s hanging on because it is the end of the swing voters, and as they disappear moderate legislators disappear.”
Reporter Phillip M. Bailey can be reached at pbailey@USAToday.com or 502-582-4475