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Collins drinks in reservoir of goodwill, largesse in rural Maine
SOMESVILLE, Nov. 6, 2020 – At least we can be grateful we didn’t have a tortured week of Ranked Choice vote counting.
In Van Buren, Maine, they probably already have forgotten there was an election four days ago, as hardened residents in the town bordering Canada go about the business of preparing for the onset of winter before they can see signs of thawing in June.
On Tuesday, citizens of Van Buren in the very north central part of Aroostook County gave Joe Biden a 471-415 victory and then split the ticket to give Susan Collins a resounding 520-322 win.
A five-hour drive due south on I-95, the Town of Tremont on Mount Desert island voted 590-422 for Joe Biden and 489-467 for Susan Collins, the only town on heavily Democratic MDI to do so.
Across Maine and especially the vast rural northern part of Maine where Susan Collins cut her teeth as a young political aide and then worked her way up the food chain to be elected to the Senate in 1996, people are loyal to people who remind them of themselves, to conduct business according to their provincial ethos. The flip side is their mistrust of folks “from away” – a polite and quaint aphorism tinged with geographic chauvinism. In this case, it bore serious consequences.
This silent code is revered in the rural sector of the “two Maines” where household income is significantly lower than that of the southern and more dense region. And where formal education is lower. Colin Woodard, the renowned Portland Press Herald journalist, compared rural Maine to that of Kentucky.
Collins grew up in Caribou, a half hour from Van Buren. Every town within 45 minutes of Caribou that voted for Joe Biden also voted for Collins – Madawaska, Wallagras, St. Francis, Madawaska Lake Township, Westmanland, Rogue Bluffs and Seboeis Plantation. Even typing those names made QSJ aware of how huge and fractured Maine is.
Farther south in Penobscot County the same contradiction took shape as another big cluster of Biden supporters split their votes – Old Town (2,365-1,668 for Biden), Bangor (9,452-6,065) and Hampden (2,451-2,265). They went all in for Susan Collins.
And it wasn’t just a small contradiction. Biden overwhelmed Trump in Maine. He got 72,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton, which made
the Susan Collins victory even more dramatic.
Folks forget just how popular Susan Collins was in Maine. In 2014 she won every county, and almost 70 percent of the votes. In Cumberland County, the liberal bastion of Maine, she won 62 percent of the vote. (see chart left)
Until Donald Trump came along to play his brand of “take-no-prisoner” politics, Susan Collins was the darling of both the left and right. In 2015, polling firm Morning Consult found Collins to have, at 78 percent, the highest approval ratings of any Republican senator. .
She got Maine more than its fair share of federal largesse, whether it was in shipbuilding contracts, marine research grants or transportation improvements. And her reputation for constituent service was legendary, with multiple satellite offices to handle social security and disability problems for Maine’s elderly.
No town exemplified the pull of the Susan Collins mystique more than Tremont right here in the Quietside. Tremont has 492 registered Democrats, 320 Republicans and 349 unenrolled voters. It voted for Biden overwhelmingly, 590 to 422. But Susan Collins got 489 Tremonters t versus 467 for Sara Gideon. The fishing village of Bass Harbor received a big share of individual federal grants of up to $250,000 for each lobstermen. Apart from being “from away,” Gideon could only watch from the sidelines as the incumbent and soon-to-be the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee waved her wand and made sure voters could feel the power of a veteran who knew how to wield influence.
One campaign ad touted a $19.6 million grant Collins secured for the Town of Lubec – the northernmost fishing village in DownEast Maine – to erect a safe harbor to protect the lobster boats from being buffeted by the sea. Lubec voted 486-351 for Susan Collins, after giving Biden a 457-406 edge over Trump. There were many more Lubecs to be told in this campaign of attrition. Susan Collins was the Vietcong in this fight, shooting down Sara Gideon’s expensive Hueys with well targeted ads to remind voters of her ground game, and how she was not going to give an inch to those “from away.”
But now that she’s won, what does the future portend?
One has to wonder which is the Susan Collins we’ll see in action under a President Biden – the staunchly independent Senator from Maine who once wrote that Donald Trump is not fit for office or the obsequious party servant who trembled when things mattered? Will this be her chance to restore some luster to her legacy?
One thing for sure, Susan Collins will continue to play a familiar tune for rural Mainers she’s honed for 24 years.