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Susan Collins Faces Tough Senate Reelection Campaign


Even before President Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Senator Susan Collins faced a tough reelection. She's the Maine Republican whose last-minute decision to vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh two years ago animated her opposition. And as Maine Public Radio's Steve Mistler reports, judicial politics are not only still driving voters on the left; they're also testing her support by conservatives.

STEVE MISTLER, BYLINE: Last week, Collins invited South Carolina Senator Tim Scott to Maine for an event designed to reinforce her central argument for a fifth term.


TIM SCOTT: There's no question that when you're looking for the best partner to work with in the United States Senate, you look no further than Susan Collins of Maine.

MISTLER: Collins has tried to focus on local issues, but it hasn't been easy. Take the looming Supreme Court confirmation fight, where Collins has managed to anger the left and the right with this statement.


SUSAN COLLINS: I have said that I think in the interest of fairness and consistency, given what did happen four years ago, that we should not vote on her nomination prior to the election.

MISTLER: Collins says she'll oppose Coney Barrett's confirmation if a vote takes place before the election. She points to the successful GOP opposition to President Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, in 2016. While Collins opposed her party's position at the time and said Garland should get a vote, now she thinks they shouldn't vote because it's too close to the election. Her position could win over undecided voters like Christine Lachance, who have helped send Collins to Washington since 1996.

CHRISTINE LACHANCE: I think that's one of the reasons that I might support her again.

MISTLER: While Lachance says she is leaning toward voting for the Democrat in the race, Sara Gideon, she still finds herself swayed by Collins's moderate reputation.

LACHANCE: So I'm saying, you know, I really am torn.

MISTLER: Democratic voters once made up a big part of Collins' coalition, but these days, they're not buying it.


LARRY: Now she's trying to placate people that are in the middle by saying she's not going to vote.

MISTLER: That includes Larry from Bangor, who recently called into Maine Public Radio's daily talk show program but didn't provide his last name.


LARRY: I mean, she's already voted more than 200 times for extreme conservative judges.

MISTLER: Gideon, the Democrat, has centered her campaign around Collins' votes for conservative judges, and she's highlighted the potential threat to the Affordable Care Act when the Supreme Court takes up a case after the election that could invalidate the law.


SARA GIDEON: Now we're in the middle of a pandemic. And one week after Election Day, we are going to see the Supreme Court pick up the Affordable Care Act and take, potentially, health care away from Americans. We need to do better.

MISTLER: Conservative voters aren't thrilled with Collins either because she hasn't embraced Coney Barrett's nomination. Longtime Collins supporter Darla Hamlin says voters have already spoken when they elected Trump and a Republican Senate.

DARLA HAMLIN: They wanted to have a conservative Supreme Court, and the Democrats lost. And so it's our opportunity.

MISTLER: While Hamlin disagrees with Collins that the vote should be delayed, she still plans to cast a ballot for her. One reason - her seat is key to keeping a Republican majority in the Senate. Former Republican Governor Paul LePage recently told a conservative radio show that his phone has been ringing off the hook with Collins defectors. LePage himself was a longtime Collins critic. But this year, he's supporting her reelection. His advice to those callers...


PAUL LEPAGE: So I tell them, I'll buy the clothespin. You just pinch your nose and vote.

MISTLER: Collins has long crafted the image that she's independent from her party, but to get reelected this fall, she'll need Republicans more than ever.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Mistler in Augusta, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Journalist Steve Mistler is MPBN's chief political correspondent and statehouse bureau chief, specializing in the coverage of politics and state government.