Augusta, Maine

Six weeks in Maine can’t make you an expert on the state, but it does teach you a few crucial things about living up here. Weather forecasts are rarely accurate (you’re better off just looking at the sky). Moose will not get out of the way of your car on the road. Rural broadband access, or the lack thereof, really is a big deal. It’s totally normal for your neighbors to construct elaborate displays of bloody skeletons or creepy old dolls in their front yards and keep them up year-round.

Oh, and this: Sen. Susan Collins is going to be a tougher incumbent to unseat than the national media and Twitter pundit class would like to think.

I currently live in Maine, sort of. This spring, an indefinite future of COVID-induced remote work caused me to bail on a tiny basement apartment in New York City for my relatives’ sheep farm outside of Augusta, Maine’s state capital. Upon hearing of my departure, more than a few acquaintances in Brooklyn asked: would I be sticking around long enough to switch my voter registration and help vote Susan Collins out of office? Well, I’m not a fan of barging into a state with the aim of trying to change its politics; my answer was no.

But there are few Republican senators who earn the contempt of media-savvy activists more than Susan Collins. The sole remaining Republican from a New England state in the House or Senate, she had a reputation as a moderate — voting to uphold Obamacare alongside the late John McCain, for instance — but her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court drew so much ire that millions of dollars were promptly raised to support whoever ran against her, regardless of who that person was.

‘Who wants to run for Senate in Maine? There will be an army of supporters with you,’ tweeted former Obama administration comms official Jen Psaki in the wake of the Kavanaugh vote.

In response to a cascade of politicos with a vague connection to the Pine Tree State (usually a vacation home) voicing interest in throwing their names into the hat, journalist Katie Herzog, then a writer for Seattle’s The Stranger, weighed in with a satirical column called ‘I’m Running for Senator of Maine.’

‘While it’s true that I’ve never actually been to Maine, I have been to both Vermont and New Hampshire, which is pretty much the same thing,’ Herzog wrote. ‘As a candidate for senator, I promise to run a clean and uplifting campaign based on truth, justice, and plenty of free lobster rolls for the voters. In addition to my love of the Portland Seadogs, which I’m pretty sure is a baseball and/or a hockey team, I have two pairs of rubber boots and love fishing.’

Well, the Portland Sea Dogs are a minor league baseball team, and their mascot, Slugger, is currently hosting virtual yoga classes for fans who can’t enjoy baseball thanks to COVID, in case that interests you. And we now know thanks to Tuesday’s Democratic primary that Collins’s opponent will be Sara Gideon, Maine’s House speaker. She is, by all accounts, a phenomenal politician, going head-to-head with then-governor Paul LePage on issues related to the state’s devastating opioid crisis and usually winning.

But Katie Herzog had a point. This is going to be the priciest, ugliest, messiest Senate race in Maine’s history, with consultants and pollsters and mega-donors soon flooding the state in the lead-up to the November 3 general election. I haven’t been here long, but I have learned that a great way to piss off Mainers is to have a bunch of people show up from out of state, think they know what’s best, and tell them what to do.

And who has the upper hand in that situation? I regret to inform the Twitterati that it’s Susan Collins.

The thing is, both Collins and Gideon are going into this race with massive amounts of out-of-state support. Collins is getting fresh support from national conservative donors including members of the Federalist Society, some of whom never had much interest in backing an apparently unreliable centrist. Gideon is pulling in donations nationwide from the groundswell of liberal activists who really, really, really hate Susan Collins. Coupled with the fact that she represents the liberal tourist hub of Freeport (home to L.L. Bean and several wonderful breweries) and is a native of Rhode Island who moved to Maine as an adult and swiftly started working in politics, it becomes all too easy for her to be painted as the hand-picked choice of a vengeful national Democratic party that thinks it knows what Mainers want.

Susan Collins is extraordinarily savvy, and has used her four terms in the Senate to prioritize issues that really do make a difference in Maine. She chairs the Senate Aging Committee (significant in  a state with the oldest median age in the country). She has used her seat on the Appropriations Committee to direct infrastructure dollars to rural regions of the state, she has successfully partnered with Democratic senators on legislation on a regular basis (you just don’t hear about it because it’s probably boring). Plus, she’s not just from Maine, she’s from ‘The County’ — Aroostook County, the far northern corner of the state. That’s not an area the pollsters rolling in from DC in advance of the general election understand at all.

Sure, Collins’s approval rating has gone from through-the-roof to six feet under over the past few years. But I wonder how much of this comes from Trump-supporting conservatives who think she’s not sufficiently loyal, rather than solely moderates eager to give her the boot. And Gideon has work to do: the left isn’t sold on her. Our Revolution, the Bernie Sanders-founded political operation, endorsed a challenger who pulled in nearly a quarter of the vote in the primary in spite of the fact that national media would have had you think Gideon was running unopposed.

You’ll hear a lot in the lead-up to the Senate election that Maine has ‘a fiercely independent streak’. Please do not start a drinking game that involves taking a shot every time you read that; you will need a liver transplant. Since moving here, I’ve learned Maine’s political independence is nuanced; people are unapologetic about politics, understand that their views will never be universal, and manage to get along and live in proximity to one another in spite of this without running around cancelling their neighbors. If I’m driving into Augusta to pick up a pizza, I’ll drive past a house with a yard covered in Trump signs that’s fewer than a hundred yards away from a house with a lawn display that features a coronavirus death count (updated daily) on a sign atop a pile of skeletons (fake, I hope) and a hand-painted sign that reads ‘TRUMP GETS AN “F”’. This would never have passed muster in gentrified Brooklyn, where a Bernie sign in 2016 was considered hostile if the rest of the neighborhood was gunning for Hillary.

I don’t know how she’s done it, but Susan Collins has managed to get the wonderfully weird and proudly opinionated citizens of this state to keep voting for her while simultaneously making middle-of-the-road her personal brand. That’s not easy, and in spite of the current climate I wouldn’t discount her ability to do it again. And if I were Sara Gideon, I’d be careful of how much help I accept from people flooding in from the Democratic mainstream who think they know best. The state’s a whole lot more than lighthouses and lobster rolls.

I realized just how far outside the combative, Twitter-fueled hyper-partisanship of New York and DC media culture I was a few evenings ago, enjoying a pint of ‘Bicentenni-Ale’ (Maine loves a good terrible pun) at the Liberal Cup brewpub in Hallowell, a riverfront town adjacent to Augusta with a reputation for an early start to happy hour. Further down the bar from me was a pair of middle-aged gentlemen who were engaged in a heated and expletive-filled debate over Trumpian politics. It seemed like it might get vicious. But it didn’t end with a bar fight; it ended with the two of them, clearly longtime friends, buying drinks for one another.

Then, a few minutes later, there was a bar fight, but neither of those two gentlemen was involved, and it wasn’t about politics. Something about some guy’s wife. Nobody really knew for sure, and within a few minutes, it was back to the Bicentenni-Ale.