Mary Ann Lynch, of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, is a model Democrat. She began her political career as a staffer for Democratic Governor Joe Brennan and has supported the party with donations and volunteer work for more than 40 years. In the past two elections, she voted a straight Democratic slate—Joe Biden, U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree, Governor Janet Mills—with one exception. Last fall, with control of the Senate on the line and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings a traumatic recent memory, Lynch cast a ballot for Republican Senator Susan Collins. She has no regrets.

“I’m a ticket splitter,” Lynch told me. “I don’t often split, but I do split. I vote for the person who I feel would be the best for Maine and for the country. Instead of saying we need more Democrats or more Republicans, I would say we would need more people like Susan Collins who reach across the aisle to get things done.”

Lynch does not share the ominous feeling, increasingly common among Democrats, that time is running out. A paper-thin majority in Congress is likely to disappear next year, leaving just months to pass paid family leave and protect voters from conservative attempts at disenfranchisement. As the likes of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema pettifog and delay, many Democrats wish for just one more Senate seat. And as Texas and other states pass restrictive abortion laws unchecked by the Supreme Court, frustrated Democrats turn to voters in Maine, who returned Collins to the Senate last fall despite her vote for Kavanaugh and the Republican tax bill, and ask: Why?

To her Democratic supporters, Susan Collins embodies a disappearing spirit of compromise, one more important than her vote on any policy decision—or for Brett Kavanaugh.

Exit polling indicates that 13 percent of Collins’s support in 2020 came from registered Democrats. Women overall broke for Collins over her challenger, Sara Gideon, 49 to 46 percent. How did these constituencies make a decision seemingly so against their own interests? How do they feel about it now? Ask them, and their answers often evoke nostalgia for things lost—paper mills, union jobs, and a bipartisan, collegial Congress. They also share a lack of urgency about the slow-moving constitutional crisis instigated by Donald Trump, a sign, along with the election of Glenn Youngkin in Virginia this fall, that Democrats will have to do more to win than point to Trump’s misdeeds, especially now that he’s off the ballot.

Joe Bean, of Falmouth, Maine, is not related to the famous L. L. Bean family, of comfy sportswear and (formerly) generous return policies, but he does embody another Maine tradition: a certain spin on political independence. Like Maine’s other senator, Angus King, Bean is not formally affiliated with a party, and also like King, he votes mostly with Democrats, which includes supporting the party’s candidates for president, Congress, and the governor’s mansion. With one exception: Collins.

In recent years, Democrats have relied on disgust generated by the antics of Trump—and, in Maine, the proto-Trumpist former Governor Paul LePage—to sway voters like Bean their way. And for the most part, lately, it has worked—Republicans haven’t put forward someone Bean could stomach for years. But Collins, to Bean, embodies a disappearing spirit of compromise, more important than a particular policy decision or appointee. “It hasn’t been pretty down there in D.C.,” he told me, “but I see her continuing to try to be that bridge between the parties.”

Bean, a retired hospital executive who has lived in Maine all his life, wants to see major Democratic initiatives such as Build Back Better succeed. Yet he said he considered Gideon a dedicated partisan who only would have added to the divide; Collins, in bringing along other Republicans, will help to get things done. He questioned why Biden didn’t follow the example of Bill Clinton, who in a bipartisan gesture hired Collins’s mentor, former Senator Bill Cohen, to serve in his cabinet. “Why can’t Biden do some of that outreach?” Bean asked. “Talk to the senators on the other side who might be willing to make a deal?”

This kind of thinking helps explain why the Kavanaugh vote failed to pull away the kinds of moderates who, in the Trump era, have been (mostly) reliable votes for Democrats. Lynch, a supporter of abortion rights, told me she was impressed by Collins’s conduct during the 2018 hearings—meeting with dozens of advocates from both sides, reading reams of documents, and calling for the FBI to investigate Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against the judge. It was the evenhandedness that mattered, even more than the result. “I probably would have respected her vote either way, because of the due diligence she had done,” Lynch said of Collins. “That’s what I want to see from a senator.”

Since joining the Supreme Court, Kavanaugh has signaled that he is willing to overturn or limit Roe v. Wade in a decision due in June—seemingly reneging on his assurances to Collins that the precedent is “settled law.” So far, Collins has declined to comment on Kavanaugh’s remarks, during oral arguments on a Mississippi abortion law this December, that “if you think about some of the most important cases, some of the most consequential cases in this Court’s history, there’s a string of them where the cases overruled precedent.” In our conversations, Collins’s supporters told me it was too early to tell what Kavanaugh’s legacy on the Court would be.

Meanwhile, despite the Capitol attacks on January 6 and what has followed, Lynch and others interviewed for this story don’t agree that the Republican Party’s drift toward authoritarianism—denying the 2020 results, passing strict voter-suppression laws, subverting local control of elections—demands exceptional measures from Democrats and independents. “I don’t think it’s a time of crisis,” Lynch told me. “We have had far greater crises in this country. I’m naive; I still think that if we can reach across the aisle and understand each other, we can come to compromise and move forward.”

Bean framed the problem in an inverse way: If there is a danger to democracy, it’s in the presence of extreme partisanship on both sides, which pulls the country ever further apart. “I do think there’s a crisis, and I’m very concerned about it, frankly,” he said. “But I don’t think either side is right.”

That view is shared by another registered Democrat: Bill Green, a legendary Maine newsman who cut a series of campaign ads for Collins. Green places blame on both the right and the left, and is convinced that the country will head back to the middle. “I’m disgusted by January 6,” he told me. “But I’m disgusted by Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, too”—a reference to looting and rioting that followed Black Lives Matter protests in those cities. “I feel like we’re starting to recognize that some of our systems are worth keeping. We just need to work on them.”

Thoughtful or not, brave or not, Collins’s stance on Kavanaugh—and her relationship with Trump—unquestionably harmed her standing in Maine. The senator won her prior election, in 2014, by 37 points over her Democratic challenger. In 2020, Collins beat Gideon 51 to 42, not factoring the many votes for the progressive independent Lisa Savage that, under Maine’s ranked-choice system, likely would have gone Gideon’s way had Collins failed to break 50 percent. Before the election, nearly every major poll showed Gideon significantly ahead, an error that observers afterward blamed on late-breaking undecideds and undercounting of ticket splitters. But some part of Collins’s reelection—however small—can also be attributed to the influential endorsement she received from Bill Green.

For 30 years, Green, a folksy television reporter known for his sweater vests and down-home sayings, hosted Bill Green’s Maine, a popular program that celebrated the state and its icons, from lobster boats to lighthouses to potato farms. A year into his retirement, the Senate race was at its feverish peak. Green, who spares no affection for Trump, watched with disgust as attack ads called Collins a “Trump stooge” who had “betrayed” her state. (Negative ads also dubiously charged Gideon with protecting a sexual predator in the Maine legislature and abandoning the speakership to campaign.) “It was snippy,” Green told me. “It was undignified. In Maine we ought to be able to have at it, but it shouldn’t be malicious.”

“I’m turned off by all the ads attacking my friend Susan Collins, and I find them offensive,” he said in an ad that aired that October. Green’s sentiments echoed those of many Mainers put off by the nastiness of the campaign, as well as their feeling that Gideon was drawing support from big-money outsiders. (“I’ve lived in Maine since 1975, and I’ve never seen such a negative campaign,” Lynch told me.) And although “my friend Susan” is, to Green, just that—an actual friend of his family—that language also reminded Mainers that they, too, knew Collins. If they hadn’t met her in the grocery store or at the 4-H, they’d seen her on TV and in person, stumping for their votes as she had for the past 24 years. In the ad, Green lent encouragement to ticket splitters. “No matter who you support for president, please remember: Maine needs Susan Collins.”

Collins’s votes in the Senate since her reelection have been just fine with Green, too. This summer, she helped defeat the For the People Act, arguing that its sweeping voting rights provisions—making Election Day a federal holiday, restoring eligibility to felons who’ve served their sentences, keeping names on voting rolls, automatically registering eligible voters—went far beyond preserving the right to vote. Green wasn’t convinced either that such sweeping action was necessary in response to laws such as Georgia’s, which forbids giving water to people waiting to vote. (With many polling places closed in Black areas, lines are often long.) Should people be allowed, Green mused, to give voters even such small gifts as a bottle of water? “What is that law saying? I don’t know,” he said. “Leave it to Susan. I trust her.”

Rob Wolfe

Rob Wolfe is an editor at the Washington Monthly.