Republican Susan Collins, who started off 2020 as the most disliked senator in the U.S., defeated Democratic challenger Sara Gideon in a nail-biter Wednesday, denting Democrats’ dwindling hopes to take back control of the Senate. Collins defeated Gideon, who serves as speaker of the Maine state house, with a majority of first-place votes in the ranked-choice voting state.“While we came up short, I do believe Mainers in every corner of this state are ready to continue to work together to make a difference,” Gideon said in a concession speech Wednesday. “While this election may be over, we have to work together to build a better future.”
The race was a struggle to the end, especially given that Collins, once regarded as a respectable moderate in an increasingly partisan chamber, has seen her stock tumble in the divisive era of President Donald Trump. She took what was likely her hardest fall in 2018, when she voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh and helped hand Senate Republicans the narrow sliver of victory they needed to put him on the Supreme Court.Collins has supported reproductive rights, so her vote for Kavanaugh—who, abortion rights supporters say, will help dismantle federal protections for abortion—was seen as a betrayal and a sign of her ultimate allegiance to a president whom Democrats despise. Millions of dollars in donations poured in for her challenger, who had not even been chosen yet.In January 2020, ahead of the election, Collins was the most unpopular senator in the chamber, according to polls by Morning Consult. She even beat out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican reviled among liberals.Collins also drew questions and ire from both sides of the aisle during Trump’s impeachment trial, where she was one of only two GOP senators to vote to allow witnesses and other documents into the trial. Despite that decision, she later voted in favor of acquitting Trump.Collins was also the only Republican senator to vote against the October confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Democrats had thought that Maine’s reliance on ranked-choice voting, unlike other states, might give them an additional edge. In ranked-choice voting, if no candidate manages to get a majority, election officials remove the lowest-ranked candidates and give those votes to the voters’ second-choice pick. This process continues until a candidate achieves a majority.Democrats had dreamed of taking back the Senate, which is currently controlled 53-47 by Republicans. (Technically, the Democratic totals include two Independents who caucus with the Democrats.) They needed four seats to flip the chamber, since Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones lost his seat to Republican Tommy Tuberville.As of Wednesday afternoon, though, they’d flipped just two seats, for a net gain of one. Colorado former Gov. John Hickenlooper beat Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, while Democrat Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, defeated Republican Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona. With her fifth term secure, Collins is now the longest-serving Republican woman in Senate history.