PORTLAND, Maine (CN) — The U.S. Senate race in Maine could well decide whether Democrats take back control of the chamber this year — but a quirk of state law is likely to mean that the results won’t be determined until weeks after Election Day.
Republican Senator Susan Collins is one of the country’s most vulnerable incumbents in a Senate landscape that RealClear Politics rates a virtual tie with the balance of power hinging on a handful of toss-up races.
But in the Maine contest that features two independents, no poll this year has given either major-party candidate 50% of the vote. If that holds true on Nov. 3, the election will be determined under a complex system of “ranked-choice voting” that takes voters’ second and third choices into account.
That could take weeks.
Collins, 67, is a four-term Republican in a Democratic-leaning state who has carefully built a reputation as an independent who is often willing to disagree with her party. In 2013, she sided with President Barack Obama more than three-quarters of the time.
But after a string of easy re-elections, she is facing a tough challenge from Democratic Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon. Gideon has led almost every poll this year, “but almost always within the margin of error,” noted James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Farmington. “I’d rate it a toss-up,” he said.
Traditionally, the winner of a Senate election is the candidate who gets the most votes, even if the candidate doesn’t get a majority of the ballots cast. But in 2016, Maine adopted a controversial system called ranked-choice voting that requires candidates to get an absolute majority but allows voters to pick a second, third and fourth choice.
If no one gets 50% of the vote, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that person’s votes are redistributed based on the voters’ second choices. If there’s still no winner, the next-lowest scoring candidate is eliminated and the votes are redistributed, and so on until someone gets to 50%.
In 2018, this system reversed the result in the election in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin won the most votes on Election Day, but after two minor candidates were eliminated and their votes redistributed, Democrat Jared Golden was declared the winner.
The redistribution process took nine days, and since Maine has two congressional districts, it only involved half the state. A redistribution of a statewide Senate race could take even longer, especially if control of the Senate is at stake and both parties rush in teams of lawyers to oversee the process.
Melcher predicted that this is exactly what will happen.
One of the independent candidates this year is Lisa Savage, a retired schoolteacher and union negotiator who supports a progressive agenda, including the Green New Deal, free public college, Medicare for All and a universal basic income.
Savage’s campaign is explicitly based on ranked-choice voting. She is urging Mainers to vote for her to express support for progressive ideals and to pick the more moderate Gideon as their second choice, even explicitly using the campaign slogan “Sara Second.”
The other independent is Max Linn, a retired financial planner who strongly supports President Donald Trump, something Collins has declined to do.
But while Linn wants a five-year moratorium on immigration and is urging Mainers to buy guns for self-defense, he also calls himself an environmentalist who opposes a controversial power project and has endorsed student-loan forgiveness.
“He’s sort of ideologically all over the place,” said Dan Shea, director of Colby College’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs.
In a recent Colby College poll, Gideon was ahead of Collins by 45% to 41% with 5% supporting Linn and 3% supporting Savage.
Collins’ difficulties this year are a direct result of two of her Senate votes, one in favor of Trump’s tax cuts and, more consequentially, her deciding vote in favor of confirming Supreme Court Justice Bruce Kavanaugh.
Collins has always polled well among women, but the Kavanaugh vote hurt her in light of the #MeToo movement, Melcher said.
Ronald Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine, said the Kavanaugh vote “did lasting damage to her brand” and drove away a lot of Democrats who used to split their ticket for her.
Schmidt said it was an “uncharacteristic misstep” for Collins to wait until the last minute and cast the deciding vote “because it fed into her Saturday Night Live stereotype, that she claims to be independent but she’s a reliable Republican depending on how badly her vote is needed.”
Jacqueline Fawcett, a nurse educator in Waldoboro, said that for her “the Kavanaugh debacle was the last straw. Susan Collins had always impressed me as caring about women’s issues, but now she’s no longer advocating for women’s rights. We can’t believe anything she says.”
On the other hand, if Collins had voted against Kavanaugh she would have faced a tough primary challenge, Melcher observed. After the Kavanaugh vote, conservative former Governor Paul LePage not only decided not to run against her but also put heavy pressure on another primary opponent, Derek Levasseur, to drop out of the race.
Still, the Kavanaugh controversy energized national Democrats who wanted revenge and sensed an opportunity to defeat Collins. Unprecedented amounts of money flowed into the state from all over the country. The race so far has cost a staggering $133 million, including $70 million spent by outside groups largely on negative advertising.
The candidates “have more money than they know what to do with,” said Schmidt. “I have an 8-year-old daughter and these days 90% of the ads on her YouTube children’s programming are about the Senate race.”
What makes the furious campaigning all the more remarkable is that there are few stark issues separating the liberal Republican from her centrist Democratic challenger. The race has largely turned on the candidates’ personalities and backgrounds.
Gideon’s argument is that Mainers were right to vote for Collins in the past because she was independent, but she’s not independent anymore and has been co-opted by Washington Republicans.
“Gideon is saying, ‘I’m what Collins used to be,’ which is a smart move because Collins used to be popular,” said Schmidt.
Gideon’s claim is bolstered by the fact that she has poached endorsements from some groups that previously supported Collins, including pro-choice and gun-safety organizations and a key iron-workers union.
This line of attack resonates with Fawcett.
“I used to be really impressed by Collins’ moderate approach,” she said, “but now she’s caved in to the president and she’s not very different from the other Republicans in Congress. So many people have sold their souls.”
Collins’ advertising paints Gideon as risky and untested and as a carpetbagger of sorts. Gideon has lived in Maine since 2004 and has been a state representative since 2012. By contrast, Collins has been in the Senate since 1997 and her family has operated a lumber business in Caribou, Maine since 1844.
A recent Republican Party ad paints Gideon as a privileged elitist who lived in New York and Paris before buying a million-dollar oceanfront estate in Maine with a 300-foot dock. She has feathered her own nest while doing little to help the state, the ad claims.
By contrast, Collins brags about using her committee positions to bring home more than $740 million in infrastructure projects.
With the race so close, the outcome will depend on turnout. In particular, Collins needs Trump voters to show up at the polls and then decide to vote for her while they’re at it, said Schmidt.
And that effort is being helped by another quirk of Maine election law. Maine awards two of its four electoral votes to the state’s overall winner and one each to the winner of its two congressional districts. Back in 2016, hoping to pull off a razor-thin electoral-college victory, the Trump campaign targeted Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and won it. Trump is trying to do the same thing this year.
The second district, consisting of the northern part of the state, is the second-most rural district in the entire U.S. On Oct. 19, Vice President Pence was campaigning in tiny Hermon, Maine, population 5,981. Donald Trump Jr. also visited the district this year, as did Trump himself in June when he opened 5,000 square miles of ocean to Maine fishermen that had been placed off-limits by President Obama.
But while the Trump campaign’s efforts in a largely blue state might help Collins, Democrats believe that Trump’s presence also energizes Gideon supporters and have been making efforts to tie Collins to Trump in the public’s mind. In an unprecedented move, the state Democratic Party has been encouraging Democratic voters to put up lawn signs that say “Trump/Collins 2020.”
Collins has a difficult relationship with the president whom she didn’t support in 2016 and won’t say if she supports this year. After Collins announced that she would vote against Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, Trump tweeted that Collins was a disappointment and “not worth the work!”
The Trump tweet distancing himself from Collins might actually help her with some voters, said Melcher, although he doubts that that was Trump’s strategic intention.
“Can he play three-dimensional chess well enough to plan that Jedi mind trick?” Melcher asked skeptically. “I just don’t think he thinks over his tweets for a week.”
In any event, the largely negative tone of the campaign in which Collins and Gideon have constantly criticized each other’s integrity could drive up third-party support and prolong the outcome through two rounds of ranked-choice voting. If the Maine race decides control of the Senate, as it well might, national attention could be focused for weeks on a small number of votes in a state that doesn’t normally grab many headlines.
If that happens, said Schmidt, “Maine would finally become famous for something other than Stephen King and lobsters.”