STANDISH, MAINE — Sen. Susan M. Collins is a Trump toady in the pocket of the insurance companies, and her likely Democratic opponent, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, is a liar who covers for child predators. That is, if all you have to go on are political ads.
The name-calling and negative attacks on television speak volumes about the competitive nature of the “toss-up” Senate race. Already the most expensive in Maine’s history, the contest is drawing national attention because it will go a long way in deciding whether Republicans keep calling the shots in the upper chamber of Congress.
“The Collins team recognizes that this is a battle, that this is a nationally targeted race, that not just the country but the whole world is watching this and that the campaign is under the microscope,” said Josh Tardy, a former state House Republican leader who serves as co-chairman of the campaign.
Ms. Collins’ fate could hinge on her ability to convince voters that her independent streak is alive and well in an era of intense polarization — all while running on a ticket with President Trump, for whom she did not vote in 2016 and has been mum on whether she will back him this fall.
“The theme Democrats are trying to develop is that ‘I voted for Collins all these times before, why should I vote for her again?’” said James Melcher, a professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington. “They are trying to develop the idea that she used to be all right, but now she has changed, and that money and Mitch McConnell have changed Collins into something she didn’t use to be.”
Ms. Collins, 67, first won her seat in 1996. She cruised to a 37-point reelection victory in 2014 and is seeking her fifth term in a contest that is testing her reputation for working across party lines.
Her votes in favor of Mr. Trump’s tax cuts in 2017 and to confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court helped boost her standing with Republicans and avoid a primary challenge from her right flank.
Those votes, though, also provided her rivals with ammunition.
Democrats say she falls in line with Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, when it matters most and that she is not a friend of pro-choice voters.
Indeed, Mrs. Gideon, who has endorsements from NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said Justice Kavanaugh’s dissent against a recent ruling striking down Louisiana abortion restrictions was evidence that Ms. Collins’ vote has opened the door to assaults on abortion rights.
Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley said that argument is bogus.
“To suggest that Justice Kavanaugh’s dissent in this particular case is a vote to outlaw abortion is absurd and not based in fact,” said Mr. Kelley, noting that Ms. Collins agreed with the decision. “As Justice Gorsuch wrote, ‘in truth, Roe v. Wade is not even at issue here.’”
Mr. Melcher said the president has put Ms. Collins in a tough position.
“I think Collins’ biggest problem is President Trump,” he said. “I don’t think she would be having anywhere near this level of trouble with a President McCain or President Romney.
“In this era of Trump, where things are very polarized, there is a lot of, ‘Which side are you on?’ and her approach winds up not making people as happy as it used to,” Mr. Melcher said. “It has made it difficult for her to keep a foot on both of those platforms.”
Ms. Collins did not accompany Mr. Trump last month during his visit to Maine.
She has been touting her work on behalf of people with diabetes and has been highlighting a recent scorecard from The Lugar Center at Georgetown University that ranked her as the most bipartisan senator for seven straight years.
She also has focused on her co-author role in the Paycheck Protection Program, which has helped keep small businesses afloat during the coronavirus crisis.
“She views this as a referendum on her public service and her resume,” Mr. Tardy said. “She looks at every election as a job interview, and she is trusting that Maine will reelect her with numbers that are not as close as the press is making it out to be.”
A poll from the National Republican Senatorial Committee late last month found Ms. Collins with an 8-point lead over Ms. Gideon. A Public Policy Polling survey released this week painted a different picture, showing Ms. Gideon with a 4-point lead, 46% to 42%.
The Collins forces questioned the methodology of the PPP survey, which found that 46% of voters think Ms. Collins is “more a partisan voice for Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell” and 42% think she is “more an independent voice for Maine.”
Mr. Tardy panned the findings.
“When the results get reported in November, there are going to be some pollsters who are going to just say the tide must have turned,” he said. “No, you just got it wrong.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have added over 40,000 voters to their ranks since the 2016 election, according to the Portland Press Herald. It gives them a 90,000 voter registration edge over the Republican Party, which has added 4,000 voters.
The Maine Republican has attributed the numbers to Mrs. Gideon’s contested primary election this month.
In another warning sign, Mrs. Gideon last week reported raising more than $8 million in her latest campaign finance report, doubling the haul of Ms. Collins.
Mrs. Gideon, however, has burned through $5 million more than Ms. Collins, who also is trying to navigate the reality of campaigning during the COVID-19 epidemic.
“It’s a more challenging environment in which to reach people,” Ms. Collins told The New York Times over the weekend. “Being grossly outspent makes it harder because I can’t offset that by increasing the number of appearances that I’m doing.”
Ms. Collins has taken a more aggressive approach over the airwaves than she has during her previous campaigns.
The latest Collins campaign ad accuses Ms. Gideon of doing nothing as speaker of the Maine House in response to COVID-19 and job losses.
“Sara Gideon and her dark-money allies lie over and over an endless barrage of attack ads,” says the ad, citing fact-checkers asserting that the Democrat is operating in mistruths. “Sara Gideon 100 days wasted. Zero leadership.”
The NRSC, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, is accusing Ms. Gideon of doing nothing when she learned that a fellow state lawmaker was preying on high school girls.
“For almost six months, Speaker Gideon was aware of an alleged child molester in the state legislature,” the narrator says. “She did nothing. Only when it was recovered by the press did she act.”
Ms. Gideon is firing back by saying she was the first person in the state Legislature to call on the accused state representative to resign “when evidence of misconduct was revealed” and saying Ms. Collins has refused to stand up to Mr. Trump.
“But even with mountains of evidence, Susan Collins gives Donald Trump a pass,” the narrator says in an ad. “Susan Collins shouldn’t be lecturing anyone about leadership.”