By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Susan Collins is fighting for her political life in a race that could decide control of the Senate, having enjoyed years of popularity as an independent-minded moderate before fellow Republican Donald Trump entered the White House.
A senator from Maine since 1997 who has voted with Trump two-thirds of the time, Collins is among nine Republicans whose prospects for re-election have been thrown into doubt in a chamber where their party holds a mere 53-47 majority.
Trailing her Democratic rival in opinion polls and fundraising, Collins, 67, faces a reckoning with longtime supporters, unsettled by her tepid criticisms of Trump and her votes for White House priorities including the 2018 confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh despite charges of sexual misconduct, which he denied.
Incurring Trump's wrath, Collins on Monday became the sole Republican senator to reject his choice of Amy Coney Barrett to fill another Supreme Court seat. She said it was inappropriate to fill the vacancy so close to a presidential election.
Collins has voted with Trump 67.5% of the time, according to the website FiveThirtyEight.com, making her the Senate Republican least aligned with the president. But that distinction may not save her career in Maine.
Democratic rival Sara Gideon, the 48-year-old speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, has led Collins in opinion polls since early July while driving home the message that the Republican long viewed as independent of her party has knuckled under to Trump.
Maine has a history of electing moderate Republicans, including Senator Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and then the Senate before leaving office in 1973.
It also elected Paul LePage, who served as governor from 2011 to 2019 and brought a proto-Trumpian combative style of politics to the mostly rural far northeastern state.
IN A BIND
Political analyst Jessica Taylor, who tracks Senate races for the Cook Political Report said Collins was in a bind.
"She can't move to the center any more or she loses conservatives and Trump voters in the state. But some of the votes she had to take turned off independents and conservative Democrats that she's long been able to get and really ignited the liberal grassroots against her," Taylor said.
The latest Pan Atlantic Research poll shows Gideon leading Collins by seven percentage points, only half of the 14-point lead that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden holds over Trump in Maine.
"For Senator Collins, the focus of this race has always been on the people of Maine and what she can do for them," Collins campaign spokeswoman Annie Clark said in a statement.
Collins has a narrow path to reelection, if she can lock in Republican support and attract enough independents, who represent one-third of state voters.
She last won re-election in 2014 with more than 68% of the vote. But this year, her campaign faces a number of headwinds including a voter disapproval rating above 50%, a cash disadvantage against Gideon and a ranked-choice state voting system that could help put the Democrat over the top.
Gideon has massively out-fundraised Collins, collecting a total of $69.5 million in campaign donations as of Oct. 14, vs. Collins' $27 million, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission.
The Democrat's haul left her with a whopping $20.7 million in cash on hand, as the race entered its final three weeks, compared with Collins, who had $4.4 million.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller)