Why Isn’t Maine’s Susan Collins Vulnerable?

by Stuart Rothenberg April 9, 2013 · 9:31 AM EDT

On one level, Maine’s lone Republican in Congress, Sen. Susan Collins, looks like a defeat waiting to happen.

She is a Republican from a state that went comfortably for Democrat Barack Obama twice. And she is from New England, a part of the country where the GOP is all but extinct in federal office.

Collins almost appears to be a Republican version of Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, a moderate Democrat who is vulnerable next year because his party label, which once was an asset back home, has become a liability as his state’s politics has changed.

But while Collins’ profile suggests vulnerability as she mounts another bid for re-election, there are no signs of a serious challenge on the horizon. In fact, veteran Democratic insiders scoff at the idea that the moderate Republican will even have to break a sweat in her sprint to a fourth term. A Public Policy Polling (a Democratic firm) survey in January showed Collins with a 65 percent job approval rating and holding leads of 18 points and 25 points over the state’s two Democratic House members.

Maine’s political landscape certainly doesn’t favor Collins, who is the only Republican senator seeking re-election this cycle from that state. Obama won the state by just more than 15 points in 2102 and by more than 17 points four years earlier.

Republicans lost both chambers of the Maine Legislature in 2012 (after winning them two years earlier in the Republican wave), and the only reason Republican Paul R. LePage won the governorship in 2010 was that he narrowly finished first in a three-way contest that split the Democratic vote.

Democrats currently hold both of the state’s U.S. House seats, and the last Republican to win a congressional race in the state was James Longley in 1994.

But Maine voters apparently like Collins’ moderate voting record and low-key style. She ranks as the most liberal Republican still in the Senate according to National Journal’s vote ratings, and more importantly, she has created a separate identity for herself apart from her party.

In 2008, a bad year for Republicans, Collins absolutely destroyed her Democratic opponent, then-Rep. Tom Allen, a popular former Portland mayor, by more than 22 percentage points.

That victory was an eye-opener for Democrats, and it probably is one reason why no Maine Democratic political heavyweight has come forward to challenger her.

In that election, according to the Maine Senate exit poll, Collins won 63 percent of men and 59 percent of women. She won all age groups, income categories and education categories. She won a third of Democrats, two-thirds of independents and a majority of those who said they disapproved of the way George W. Bush was handling his job. She also won 58 percent of those voters in Allen’s congressional district.

And perhaps most stunningly, Collins won 40 percent of those Maine voters who said that they voted for Obama for president.

As long as Maine voters focus on Collins’ name rather than on her Republican label, it’s difficult to see any Democrat defeating her. The first step for Democrats, of course, would be getting a candidate with stature and resources. And at this point, nobody like that is waiting in the wings.