Even before the primary, yard signs started going up in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District that looked ahead to November.

Under the words “God, life, guns,” one read “Crafts, Collins, Trump” in bold type.

That’s referring to the Republican slate of candidates in the fall election, starting with former legislator Dale Crafts, the party’s presumptive nominee to run against Democratic incumbent Jared Golden in the 2nd District.

“Collins” is of course Susan Collins, who won her primary without opposition, and is running for her fifth term in the Senate. 

And Trump is Trump.

The small print at the bottom reads “Not authorized by any candidate.” It could have added, “… especially not by Susan Collins,” who had to cringe if she saw it. “God, life and guns” might be the right message in a 2nd District Republican primary, but it’s not the agenda Collins wants to take into the toughest re-election battle of her career.

Collins ducked questions about the president last week, saying “I’ve always run my own race and that’s what I will continue to do.”

But she may find that harder to do than in the past. For one thing, her opposition is tougher.

A few weeks ago, I raised the question of whether Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon’s mainstream Democratic positions would be too moderate for Democratic voters who had been shocked by a pandemic, massive unemployment and the biggest street demonstrations in American history.

On Tuesday I got my answer: No, they are not too moderate at all. Democrats overwhelmingly chose Gideon over more progressive challengers, lining up with the party’s national establishment and major funders to put Gideon in position to outspend Collins and Republican-aligned groups in the COVID-shortened campaign season.

The few public polls in the race show Gideon slightly ahead of Collins in the four-way race that also includes independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn. Although Collins says her internal polling is “very encouraging,” she’s doing what candidates do when they are behind – which is demand more debates.

Collins is right: She has always been able to run her own race in the past. In 2008, when Barack Obama beat John McCain in Maine by 57 percent to 40 percent, Susan Collins beat Democrat Tom Allen by 61 percent to 38 percent. About a third of her voters that year also voted for Obama.

But things have changed.

In 2008, most of the negative letters to the editor we received about Susan Collins came from Republicans. She was accused of being too moderate – an undependable RINO (Republican in Name Only). 

Those writers would have loved a candidate like Crafts, who if elected this year would be among the most right wing members of Congress. He opposes abortion in all cases, with no exception for rape or incest, would repeal the Affordable Care Act and favors privatizing Social Security. He just won a primary in which the key issue was who would be the most loyal to Donald Trump.

But now the sign makers are not calling Collins a RINO. Despite her stated support for abortion rights, LGBT rights and, at times, gun control they want you to know that she’s your candidate if you are voting on the “God, life and guns” agenda because she helps keep the Republican party in the majority.

And they are not the only ones who see Collins that way. 

Organizations that used to support Collins no longer consider her a valuable ally. As long as the first vote she casts every session is for Mitch McConnell to be Majority Leader, they know that none of their priorities will ever come up for a vote.

Collins got an award from Planned Parenthood in 2017; this year they endorsed Gideon. Collins had the backing of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBT rights organization in three of her races; this year they endorsed Gideon. Collins used to be able to count on the support of the League of Conservation Voters; this year they endorsed Gideon.

So even if Collins has the “God, life and guns” vote nailed down, she can’t distance herself from candidates like Crafts and Trump, who are popular in some parts of the state, but not in all the places in which she will need to do well to win.

Collins has built relationships with voters over decades that have helped her transcend her party label in the past and maybe she can do it again, even in this highly polarized environment. But with Donald Trump in the race motivating voters on both sides of the political divide, it’s not going to be easy.

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