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Maine Sen. Susan Collins faces challenge of her political career from Sara Gideon

One of the Senate seats in play this November is that of Maine’s senior senator, Republican Susan Collins, who has long nurtured a reputation as bipartisan. But during the Trump era, her favor has fallen with some of Maine's fiercely independent voters. Now Collins is in the fight of her political career against Democratic challenger Sara Gideon. Lisa Desjardins reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    While much of the political focus right now in this country is on the race for the White House, control of the U.S. Senate is hugely important as well. And it is up for grabs.

    The respected Cook Political Report sees 12 Senate races in play, 10 of them currently held by Republicans. That includes South Carolina, where three-term senator Lindsey Graham is running for reelection in a contest Cook now sees as a tossup.

    Farther north in Maine, incumbent Susan Collins saw a rise in polls this week, but Democrats still see it as one of their best opportunities.

    Lisa Desjardins is back with our report.

  • Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine:

    So, how's business?

  • Man:

    Very good.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is not politics as usual in Maine. Senior Senator Susan Collins is in the fight of her life, running almost like an underdog, at shops in one town and with a guest star, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.

  • Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.:

    Well thank you very much for the warm welcome.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Remarks in another, even a campaign bus touring the state.

    The woman hoping to unseat her, relative newcomer Sara Gideon, a Democratic star who is speaker of the state house, for whom health care a major focus. She has been ahead in most polls. Her signature event, Supper with Sara, with voter questions, was open to all, but has been invitation-only during the pandemic.

    Both women are running on records of bipartisanship, but with sky-high partisan stakes. Who wins will help decide which party controls the U.S. Senate.

    The result? An onslaught of ads.

  • Narrator:

    You just can't trust anything Sara Gideon says.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Some casting Gideon as someone who moved to Maine, though 16 years ago, and charging she is more partisan than she claims.

  • Narrator:

    Sara Gideon, ineffective, a risky choice.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And that Collins as a former independent.

  • Narrator:

    Susan Collins has changed. She isn't for us anymore.

  • Narrator:

    Susan Collins never stands up to Donald Trump.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It is a storm of outside spending, at least $60 million in a state with fewer than one million people.

    All this on top of what has happened with the president and the coronavirus. But voters we talk to here say that's not a factor in their decision on this Senate race.

    The campaigns, however, say the coronavirus has changed how they operate.

  • Woman:

    So, again, be respectful of people's space. Please have a mask on at all times.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Team Collins just resumed door-knocking in the past two weeks, something they usually would have done for months.

  • Mary Smith:

    Oh, hi. My name is Mary, and I'm volunteering with the Maine Democratic Party.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For Democrats, phone banks are now virtual, with volunteers like Mary Smith working solo from home. Smith shows why Collins is so vulnerable. She's a Democrat who voted for her in the past and now thinks Collins has changed.

  • President Donald Trump:

    USA. USA.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's directly related to President Trump his takeover of the Republican Party, something that is an issue for vulnerable Republicans across the country, like Collins.

  • Mary Smith:

    What really did it for me was her vote on the Kavanaugh nomination and the 2017 tax cuts, and also in the impeachment, and her comments that she thought that Donald Trump had learned his lesson after that.

    So, I really looked long and hard and just decided that she wasn't for me anymore.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Collins disputes that narrative.

  • Sen. Susan Collins:

    It's just not true. My voting record is as independent as ever. For the seventh year in a row, I have been named the most bipartisan member of the Senate.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's correct. According to the political data site FiveThirtyEight.com, Collins has voted just two-thirds of the time with Mr. Trump, the least of any Republican in the Senate.

    But that also means she's not Trump enough for his core voters. It is a partisan vice grip.

  • Sen. Susan Collins:

    Well, it's certainly difficult to be a centrist who believes in a search for common ground in this highly polarized environment that we're in.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This leaves Collins running on her personal relationship with her state, including what she's done for roads and downtowns, like this one, by bringing home hundreds of millions in federal dollars.

    That means a lot to Stephen Martelli of Auburn, a town of 23,000 which worked for a decade to build this park, and got critical help from Collins. He admits it's an intense race.

  • Stephen Martelli:

    It's very hot, very hot. There's a lot of people upset with Collins. Personally, I feel like Collins is a better choice than Gideon, because we know her track record of where she's going.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    He's worried about Gideon's past support of raising a fuel tax to address climate issues. Others question if Gideon would join those Democrats who want to expand the Supreme Court.

    To us, she seemed to say no.

  • Sara Gideon:

    If you ask me today if I think those proposals help us get back to the place that I think is essential for a functioning democracy and functioning government, I don't see how they get us there.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The state, like the country, is divided.

  • Audrey Allen:

    I'm going to vote for Susan Collins. I'm proud, as a woman, at her dedication and service.

  • Nick Hagler:

    I support Sara Gideon. Susan Collins has let us down.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Maine is known for its strong, rocky coast and strong-minded voters. The race here is not just about whether Susan Collins has changed, but about whether Maine's voters have.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins traveling in Maine.

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