U.S. Sen. Susan Collins spoke at the Penobscot Snowmobile Club in Hermon on Friday to announce grant funds to five clubs across the state. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Just over three years ago, then-Gov. Paul LePage was publicly warding off U.S. Sen. Susan Collins from running to succeed him. Now in the re-election fight of her life, she needs conservatives more than ever with LePage and others on the bandwagon.

Once Maine’s most popular politician, Collins has seen bipartisan support erode since her 2018 vote for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. After easily winning her first three re-election races by increasingly large margins, she had approval ratings in the high 60s in 2017. A Bangor Daily News poll released last month pegged her at 37 percent.

Her Democratic opponent, House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport, has harnessed progressive anger to reap record fundraising and a small polling lead over Collins in a heavily nationalized race that also features independents Max Linn of Bar Harbor and Lisa Savage of Solon.

All of that energy around ousting Collins has rallied Republicans to her defense. That includes conservatives who have hammered the moderate before — such as in 2017 when she was one of three Republicans to turn back party bids to repeal the Affordable Care Act — and centrists who may dislike LePage or President Donald Trump. The non-base politician is in a base election.

Collins has dealt with conservative angst before. She broke with her party to oppose the removal of President Bill Clinton during his 1999 impeachment trial, then voted to acquit Trump on two articles earlier this year. She backed Kavanaugh, but she also has backed every other high court nominee who made it to the Senate, including liberal justices.

Gideon and Democrats argue the senator has changed in the divisive Trump era. Her ardent supporters say politics have changed. Collins backed every Republican presidential nominee publicly before refusing to endorse Trump in 2016. She is silent on whether she supports him in 2020, but she has not drawn his ire and has his endorsement.

“I guess Susan has her reasons for it, but I’m not offended as a conservative or a supporter of the president that she’s doing that,” said Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax Media and an informal Trump adviser who has written glowingly of Collins. “I think she has a right to do it.”

Around this time in 2017, a shadowy poll emerged that looked like a Democratic effort to warn Collins against running for governor after LePage urged supporters to oppose her at a party event. He has endorsed her Senate run. The survey then said six in 10 Republicans in Maine disapproved of her after the health care law vote.

Collins decided not to run for governor that fall, saying she could do more in the Senate while downplaying any primary threat. At the end of the year, she backed Republicans’ tax-cut law. In October 2018, this year’s race was set in motion with her vote for Kavanaugh, who faced a sexual assault allegation dating back to high school that he vehemently denied.

Arch-conservative radio host Ray Richardson of Westbrook was shopping with his wife on the day that Collins revealed her position on the nomination in a full-throated defense of Kavanaugh on the Senate floor. He retreated to the car to listen after slamming Collins for years on the radio, angry with her over votes that aligned with Democrats.

Progressives had begun a crowdfunding campaign tied to the vote which eventually grew to $4 million. Collins called it a “bribe” and it went to Gideon after her July primary. Given the stakes, Richardson said the speech would be worthy of a second volume of “Profiles in Courage,” the book by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy that recounted bravery by senators. He backs her now.

“I may not always agree with this woman, but she is a patriot and someone who believes in the foundational principles I do,” he said.

This shook up Collins’ base. Polling in 2019 showed a large drop in Democratic support for Collins mirrored by increased Republican support. In the BDN poll, 80 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of independents and 34 percent of Republicans said their opinions of Collins were more negative than four years ago. Another 31 percent of Republicans said they were more positive.

Far from Richardson on the party spectrum is former state Sen. Mary Small of Bath, who shares Collins’ politics as a member of the party’s waning pro-abortion rights wing and has criticized LePage. She said Collins has leveraged her position to be a “voice of reason.”

Small said Collins has not faced a “Margaret Chase Smith moment” in a reference to the Maine senator’s 1950 speech against McCarthyism, arguing one senator would not effectively fight Trump. So Collins’ choices were working with him or “fight him” and risk a primary, she said.

“Susan could not have impeached him by herself,” Small said. “I’m not sure speaking out against him would make him change his rhetoric or anything at all, but I do want her down there.”

Spokespeople for Collins replied to questions on Monday with a lobbyist Josh Tardy, who serves on the Republican National Committee as it looks to re-elect Trump and is the senator’s campaign co-chair. He said Collins will “never be beholden to one group or another” and Democrats are pouring record money into Maine because Gideon will be “a loyal vote.”

Then-Gov. Paul LePage is flanked by his wife, Ann, at left, and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins at a Blaine House food drive just before the 2014 election. LePage has criticized the moderate Collins in the past, but he is backing the Republican in her nationally targeted 2020 race. Credit: Mario Moretto / BDN

At a Collins fundraiser on Thursday at the Boothbay Harbor Country Club, LePage, living in Edgecomb as he mulls a 2022 run against Gov. Janet Mills, snuck in unintroduced and mingled, one attendee said. Liquor magnate Paul Coulombe, a Republican donor who poured millions into the property’s renovation, introduced the senator.

Collins went no further than she has in public, but gave a speech touting the Kavanaugh vote and criticizing Gideon. She said former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, has gotten more liberal over the years, stopping short of backing Trump.

It was a message that conservative and moderate Republicans could get behind as they work harder than ever to keep her in 2020.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...