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For months ahead of the November election, Republican Sen. Susan Collins trailed Democratic challenger Sara Gideon in nearly every reputable opinion poll. As the target of a two-year Democratic campaign to flip control of the Senate, Collins faced a more than two-to-one fundraising deficit. Even if she eked out a win, the state’s new ranked-choice voting system might force an immediate runoff that experts predicted could hurt her.
When the race was called on Wednesday, Collins — who has served as a senator for 24 years — won by roughly a 9-point margin, even as Democrat Joe Biden carried the state.
“Susan Collins has defied political gravity before, and she did it once again,” said Jessica Taylor, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
The most striking narrative during Senate campaigns this year was the eye-popping amount of money that poured into them. Roughly $14 billion was spent on the 2020 election, including about $7.3 billion on congressional races, with Democrats donating roughly twice as much as Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The biggest takeaway now that ballots are cast will likely be how little it mattered.
“I think it shows that money isn’t everything, and it can have diminishing returns,” Taylor said.
There were 35 of 100 Senate seats on ballots this year, and Democrats needed to flip three or four to win control. Roughly a dozen races were rated by the Cook Political Report as competitive, and Republicans were widely thought to be on the defensive, with women in particular thought to be vulnerable. By Wednesday night, it looked increasingly likely that Republicans would maintain their control of the upper congressional chamber.
In Maine, Collins raised $26.5 million to Gideon’s $68.6 million, with the race shattering previous fundraising records. Outside groups spent another $70 million or more on advertising and communications supporting or opposing the two women. Dark money groups, which do not disclose the details of their donors or expenditures, spent another $10 million, according to estimates.
Collins had become a national target for Democrats in 2018 when she voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Gideon, the outgoing state House speaker, sought to make the race a referendum on whether historically independent-minded Collins had “changed” in order to appease Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and rubber stamp Trump’s agenda. Collins sought to keep the race local, crisscrossing the state in the final days before Election Day to talk about the coronavirus relief package she helped draft that would benefit small businesses in the mostly rural state, and remind voters she is in line to be the top Republican on the appropriations panel.
“Today’s decisive victory for Sen. Collins proved that the state of Maine is not for sale; not even $100 million could convince Mainers to vote against their own self interest and the person they’ve known for years,” her spokesperson Annie Clark said.
A similar dynamic played out in Iowa, where Republican Sen. Joni Ernst fended off a challenge from Democrat Theresa Greenfield. In Kentucky, Amy McGrath, once thought to be a rising Democratic star, lost to McConnell by about 20 points. In Kansas, Dr. Barbara Bollier lost her bid to be the first Democrat elected to the Senate in 88 years. Democratic challenger MJ Hegar lost to Republican incumbent John Cornyn in Texas. Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in Georgia lost to Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock in a special election, but since neither candidate received a majority of the vote it will proceed to a January runoff, in which Loeffler could fare better.
There were exceptions. In Colorado, Democrat John Hickenlooper handily beat incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. In an Arizona special election, Democrat Mark Kelly is on track to beat Republican Sen. Martha McSally, who lost a 2018 race to Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema but was appointed in 2019 to fill a vacancy created by Republican Sen. John McCain’s death.
Amanda Litman, the co-founder of Run for Something, a group that supports progressive candidates in down-ballot races, said that Democratic losses in well-financed Senate races showed how out-of-state efforts to swing races by highlighting national issues can be “problematic” and that “there aren’t enough ads in the world to make up for a strong, grassroots infrastructure.”
“A sustained campaign of year-round contact is far more effective than $100 million spent on ads,” Litman said. “You don’t believe an ad; you believe a person.”