Four-term Republican Sen. Susan Collins was once one of the most popular senators in the country, easily cruising to re-election three times since first taking office in 1997. Now, she's an emblem of a different political era, and Democrat Sara Gideon is looking to seize on the state's changing electorate to flip the seat blue.
"Susan Collins really is the last of the traditional, New England Republicans — more moderate, fiscally conservative, but not conservative on social issues," Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine, told PEOPLE in a recent interview. "The others have either retired or lost re-election. Collins is the only one left standing."
Shifting demographics in the state mean that its electorate is increasingly moving toward more liberal candidates.
Enter Gideon, a 48-year-old mother of three and the Democrat looking to unseat Collins.
Gideon, the Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, launched her campaign with an ad tailor-made to anti-Trump suburban women. In it, she speaks directly to the camera, recounting a day in which she turned on her answering machine after coming home with her then-4- and 5-year-old boys and 1-year-old girl.
"I pressed that blinking answering machine button and heard a message left for my husband Ben," Gideon said in the ad. "It said they knew he was probably too busy at work but would he consider running for the town council? I thought to myself, actually, I think that's a job I can do."
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Gideon would seem to be the ideal Democratic candidate — she's a young, fresh face with name recognition and the backing of the party — though her record indicates she's more progressive than some Maine voters would probably like.
On the campaign trail, she's marketed an across-the-aisle appeal to voters. But she's taken clearly progressive stances on certain issues in the past, including expressing an openness to doing away with the Senate filibuster and sponsoring a bill that would expand abortion access.
"She's done a very good job positioning herself as a moderate and she's got some definite strengths, but her record in the legislature does not indicate that she’s a moderate," Brewer said.
As Brewer noted to PEOPLE, the presence of a third-party candidate — the Green Party's Lisa Savage, who switched her party affiliation to Independent to access the state's ballot more easily — has helped Gideon appear more moderate by comparison.
But for many voters, the real draw of Gideon is that, simply put, she isn't Collins, 67.
While Collins has spent years carving out a reputation for bipartisanship, in 2020, voters want her to pick a side.
In the final days before the election, polls found Collins and Gideon nearly tied, though Maine's ranked-choice voting system — in which voters rank candidates by preference —could offer Gideon a slight edge. Analysts believe that voters who opt for third-party candidates will be more likely to list Democrats as their second choice.
Though she carried every county in Maine in her three re-elections, Collins finds herself up against arguably the biggest challenge of her political career: a Republican Party that's been molded in the image of Donald Trump.
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"The party itself has changed on Collins," Brewer said, adding that the Republican Party has become more uniformly conservative since she first took office. One prime example is Maine's election of former Gov. Paul LePage, who once joked that he "was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular."
Collins has built her career on appealing to voters across party lines, but many modern-day Republicans are turned off by the senator's seeming disloyalty to the president.
The senator has repeatedly withheld support from Trump, refused to endorse him in 2016 and recently voted no on the confirmation of his latest Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett.
Though a Republican, Collins has historically garnered support from both independent voters and Democrats, publicly expressing support for abortion rights and gay marriage. But in the Trump era, she's managed to alienate those who previously voted for her.
One of the final straws among liberal voters was her vote to confirm the president's Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, despite sexual assault allegations against him.
"When Democrats are almost uniformly, viscerally opposed to Republican President Donald Trump even one vote with him is one vote too many," Brewer said. "After she cast that vote, I think a lot of voters just said, 'I don't think that I can do this anymore.' "
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