Protestors gather in the Portland, Maine office of Republican U.S. senator Susan Collins. Photos: Tristan Spinski

The Grassroots Plot to Take Down Susan Collins

On the ground with the Maine activists working to flip her seat and take back the Senate

TThe cars that crawled by the protestors were mostly courteous. Around noon on a frigid November day in Bangor, Maine, the normally sleepy downtown plaza showed signs of life as roughly two dozen people held up signs that said things like “Make Truth Matter Again” and “Senators: neglect becomes complicity” and, more bluntly, “You Lied!” The city square adjoins the main street, which is full of modest brick storefronts — a noodle bar, an Irish pub, and an outdoor sports retailer, all fitting witnesses to this equally modest display of democracy. A pickup truck drove by and the front-seat passenger gave a friendly wave to the group gathered here to urge passersby to vote against President Trump and Maine’s senior U.S. senator, Susan Collins. Minutes later, a car full of teenagers sped by and someone yelled “Trump rules!” in the activists’ direction. The demonstrators, most of whom appeared to be in their sixties and seventies, shrugged it off.

A few yards behind the picketers, Marie Follayttar, one of the leaders behind the protest and arguably the most significant progressive organizer in a state that’ll inarguably see one of the most significant elections of 2020, gently chided another member for his lack of social media presence. “You need to get that Twitter account live,” Follayttar said.

After another 30 minutes, the protest wound down and Follayttar and about half the activists stowed their signs in their cars and continued a few blocks up the street to a brightly decorated bistro to plot, over a table full of sandwiches and salads, how to defeat Collins.

Clockwise: A protest organizes outside the U.S. senator Susan Collins’ office in downtown Portland, Maine, on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019. Marie Follayttar, left, leads a grassroots effort to support progressive candidates to defeat the Maine Republican senator. Police arrive at the gathering around U.S. senator Collins’ office.

They represented groups new and old: Follayttar, 43, is co-founder and executive director of Mainers for Accountable Leadership, a two-year-old political action committee headquartered in Portland with 10,000 members. Others affiliated with Indivisible Bangor, a local chapter of the nationwide volunteer-led network, and yet others were with Move On, the left-wing political action committee. The conversation ranged from how best to respond to jeers to when to schedule their next protest to whether it would be appropriate to send pebbles to Collins’ office — a nod to historic demonstrations against Richard Nixon.

“Senator Collins is of course the top target,” Follayttar reminded everyone. “And it is going to get really intense.”

TThat the activists have this much confidence in these relatively minor acts of dissent shows just how swiftly Collins has fallen. As recently as 2017, the four-term senator was ranked as the most popular Republican in the Senate, with a reputation as a centrist and even maverick member of the GOP.

Then along came Brett Kavanaugh. Collins was one of a handful of Republican senators to publicly hedge on whether to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after he was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. An ultra-conservative, his presence on the court was also seen to be certain to put abortion and LGBT rights at risk. Her constituents, desperate for her to oppose his nomination, sent thousands of coat hangers, the symbol for back-alley abortions, to her office in Maine. Activists crowd-funded $1 million for Collins to vote against Kavanaugh.

The nation watched rapt as the Senate appeared evenly split on Kavanaugh’s fate, leaving it up to Collins to decide. As Collins began speaking, no one knew which way she would go. At first she said Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, was “sincere, painful, and compelling” in her account of being forcibly touched by Kavanaugh as high-school students in the 1980s — but ultimately there was a “lack of corroborating evidence.” Kavanaugh, she had concluded, was “an exemplary public servant, judge, teacher, coach, husband, and father.” In the end, Collins sided with him.

Mainers for Accountable Leadership and a few other activist organizations jointly raised $3 million to go toward Collins’ rival in the next election.

“The vote of course that was the most polarizing is the Kavanaugh vote,” Follayttar said. “And [it’s] the one that most people would say they are betrayed by.”

The reaction from progressive women across the country — who have long been the bedrock of political organizing — was furious. In Maine, the vote was similarly unpopular: A majority of Collins’ female constituents did not support Kavanaugh’s nomination, according to polling by the left-leaning Maine People’s Resource Center. Between August and September of 2018 — that is, the time immediately leading up to the Kavanaugh vote — Mainers for Accountable Leadership and a few other activist organizations jointly raised $3 million to go toward Collins’ rival in the next election.

Two years later, Collins hasn’t been able to shake off the Kavanaugh stench. Today, she is the second-least popular senator in the country, behind only Mitch McConnell. A number of recent polls show her approval rating continuing to plummet. After trouncing her opponent in 2014 with 68% of the vote, Collins’s race is labeled a toss-up in 2020. The Democratic frontrunner, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, outraised Collins in Maine over the summer.

The 2020 race is now on track to be the most expensive in the state’s history. While Collins has yet to officially announce plans to seek reelection in 2020, she’s certainly fundraising as if she intends to do so. She’s also remained vague on impeachment, refusing to comment on what the House is up to. Once again, she’s playing coy in a state that went narrowly for Clinton in 2016.

Whatever she decides on impeachment, it may be too late. A groundswell of grassroots activists helped Democrats take back the Maine statehouse in 2018 and flip a congressional seat here. Now they are looking to unseat her on the way to the more challenging task of retaking the Senate.

“The blue wave that started forming in 2017 is still growing and will be critical to winning in key states like Maine in 2020,” said Tori Taylor, the head of organizing at Swing Left, a national Democratic PAC.

FFollayttar’s career as a progressive organizer began, like so many others, shortly after the 2016 election. “I did a lot of advocacy in my thirties around public higher education, but for the three or four years prior to the election of Trump, hadn’t been engaged,” she said when we went, along with Indivisible Bangor organizer Michael Corlew, for a post-lunch coffee.

Follayttar attended her first protest in January 2017, a demonstration to keep Obamacare and to oppose Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary, who had been accused of domestic abuse.

Not long after that, she connected with Dini Merz through Pantsuit Nation, a 150,000 member Facebook group that formed in support of Hillary Clinton in 2016. What happened next is a story that has played out across the country, from Georgia to Pennsylvania to California, as the political energy and anger of the early Trump years drove women into political organizing.

Marie Follayttar.

The two of them scheduled an appointment in December 2017 with Senator Collins’ staff to air their grievances on a number of fronts. Twenty-seven people attended that first meeting with Collins’ staff (the senator herself did not attend); immediately thereafter, Mainers for Accountable Leadership was born. More meetings soon followed, including one for 45 minutes with Collins, which Follayttar said was, well, kind of a dud. “The meeting was civil,” she said. “We brought up protecting health care, brought up protecting the Dreamers.”

Follayttar has developed a real prowess for organizing since then, and her group’s participant list has swelled to 10,000. (She is the lone full-time employee.) “I’ve learned entirely on the fly,” she said. “I learned how to bird-dog by watching YouTube.” She’s also picked up a few insights along the way: for example, the importance of organizing around issues and not people, the value of training recruits in the art of op-ed submissions, and the importance of collaboration. (Also: don’t flood other states’ senators’ phone lines with voicemails; it interferes with constituents’ ability to reach their lawmakers.)

“I feel like Indivisible Bangor was late to Susan Collins’ party. We gave her probably too much benefit of the doubt,” said Corlew, who moved to Maine five years ago from Hawaii. “Thankfully, we have people like Marie. Without her and a couple of other people, I think we would definitely be silent.”

Both Follayttar and Corlew have caught the eyes of other noteworthy political figures, including disability rights crusader Ady Barkan, whose group, Be a Hero Fund, helped Follayttar and other activists in the state in their fundraising efforts.

“Marie is driven, compassionate, and focused on making her state a better place for the most vulnerable,” Barkan wrote in an email. “Our goal was always to lift up the work these groups were doing because they really lead this fight. Not for big donors or media acclaim, but because this is their state and their lives.”

“Mainers for Accountable Leadership have done a tremendous job,” added Betsy Sweet, a progressive Democrat who’s also vying for Collins’ seat (though has raised far less money than Gideon). “For a long time Senator Collins has been given the moniker of moderate and, digging a little bit deeper, especially in the last couple of years, that moniker is not really accurate.”

This gets at something Follayttar and Corlew spoke about at length — wanting to “demythologize” Collins’ moderate status.” They’re not wrong about the label: article after article has described her as a political maverick. And in some ways, that status isn’t undeserved: She voted in 1999 to acquit Bill Clinton during impeachment, currently boasts a 70% rating from Planned Parenthood, and broke from her Republican colleagues in 2017 to vote against repealing Obamacare. Overall, she’s voted in line with Trump’s position about 66% of the time, making her the Republican senator least in sync with her party’s leader. (For comparison, another congressperson considered especially vulnerable in 2020, Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, voted in line with Trump 95% of the time.)

But to activists like Follayttar and Corlew, that heterodox reputation is a bit misleading: “I don’t have any proof of it,” Corlew said, “but every other vote, she goes to Mitch McConnell and basically checks, ‘Can I vote no on this? It’s really unpopular in my district.’ And if there’s enough Republican votes to pass it anyway, then she comes back and votes ‘no.’ And then if there isn’t, then she votes with the party.”

That theory was a common one among the organizers I spoke with: Collins’ reputation as a freethinking centrist is more a reflection of careful politicking, particularly when the stakes are low, than of true independence. (Collins’ office did not respond to requests for comment.)

In D.C., so-called “gimme votes” are widely understood to be part of how leaders shore up their more marginal members in order to keep their majorities. Between 1997 and 2016, Collins sided with the GOP on party-line votes (that is, situations where at least half the Republicans vote one way, and half the Democrats vote another) 59% of the time, well below her colleague’s 90% average, according to Congressional Quarterly. But in 2017, with Trump in office and a more narrowly divided Senate that had fewer GOP votes it could lose and win, she voted the party-line roughly 87% of the time.

“There’s still a broad perception that she is issues-oriented in a way that doesn’t necessarily map onto party, but I think that performance is more difficult during the Trump years than it has been for her before,” said Ron Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine.

Follayttar points to a handful of issues as evidence that Collins no longer has in mind her constituents’ best interests. Take, for example, her support for Trump’s tax bill, which Follayttar said “led to the repeal of the individual mandate.” Or her refusal to support a bipartisan bill to end family separation. (“We are an old, disabled state that relies on immigrants.”) Or the fact that she received more money in the first quarter of 2019 from the Texas oil and gas industry than she did from Mainers. (“We have the Gulf of Maine warming faster than any other area in the country.”)

Most recently, Mainers for Accountable Leadership has focused on pushing for Trump’s impeachment. Here, Collins’ centrist reputation will once again be put to the test: Should she vote to acquit the president in the Senate trial and further alienate herself from her states’ progressives and moderates — or should she vote to convict and remove Trump from office, costing her conservatives’ support?

“She’s never been tested before the way that she’s being tested now,” said Kathleen Marra, Chair of the Maine Democratic Party. So far, Collins has remained relatively quiet on this front, declining to endorse the House’s impeachment inquiry but also refusing to condemn it.

With impeachment, Collins’ penchant for careful contemplation — or hedging, depending on whom you ask — is once again on full display. So far she’s only been willing to tell reporters that she’s “definitely reading materials.”

TThe day after the Bangor protest I drove about an hour and a half south to a shabby pizza shop in Lewiston to meet Patricia Fogg and Kevin Simpson, the two octogenarians behind Resist Central Maine, another local progressive activist group. It is fitting that these two should lead the group: Maine is the nation’s oldest state, with a median age of 44.6.

“We’re both old, old activists,” Fogg said with a laugh.

“She’s old, I’m not,” Simpson replied. “I got 25 more good years.”

Fogg, a retired psychotherapist and friend of Follayttar’s, created Resist Central Maine in 2017. “When the election came, I just sort of sensed so much despair in the country. People didn’t know what to do,” she said. “So I said, ‘Okay, we need to at least have a group. We need a group that we can have people who can come and talk about it.’”

Patricia Fogg.

She immediately called up Simpson, a former printmaker who she’d organized with during the Obama years. “I told my group, ‘Look, I don’t have anything else to do. I’m single. My kids are grown, my grandkids are grown,’” Fogg said.

The Resist Central Maine Facebook group now has 307 members, but Fogg can rely on just a handful of people to help stage the rallies and write op-eds. “We’re always struggling to get new members,” she said. “This is a tough, really tough city. And it is probably pretty pink. I mean, certainly compared to Portland you could almost say it was red.” Though Bates College sits in the middle of Lewiston, student participation has been thin. “We’d be happy to join them. We’ve told them that.”

One of the reasons progressives like Fogg remain so optimistic about defeating Collins — and why the national Democratic apparatus is so focused on the race — is that Maine is one of just nine states where there are more unaffiliated voters than there are registered Democrats or Republicans. And while political scientists have been quick to point out that an independent status doesn’t necessarily signal nonpartisanship — “The majority of our Independents do tend to vote overwhelmingly with one party or the other over time,” said Schmidt, the political scientist — in purple regions like Lewiston these individuals are still considered up for grabs.

“When volunteers go out and talk to voters in Maine and across key swing states across the country, it’s not about party labels,” said Taylor, the Swing Left organizer. “They are talking about the issues voters care about the most, the local ones that impact their day to day lives — education, health care, jobs.”

In a state as tiny as Maine (population: 1.3 million), Fogg’s approach isn’t a bad one. “Grassroots in the state is just about everything,” said Marra, the Maine Democratic Party Chair. “A lot of it is neighbors talking to neighbors.”

Hoping to see the flip side of this provincial political strategy, I attended a Democratic Senate candidates’ forum the next day in Augusta. Sara Gideon, the Democratic front-runner who has since won the backing of powerhouse Democratic fundraising group Emily’s List, was billed to show up, as were progressives Betsy Sweet and Bre Kidman, along with Ross LaJeunesse, the former head of international relations at Google. I say billed, because that’s not what happened.

When I reached the forum, which was held inside a utilitarian-looking building that housed the plumbing union, I found not a bustling convention or debate, but a sign of just how hard it will be to sustain the fight against Collins. The room was nearly empty. Just a handful of people sat on the scattered chairs beneath the harsh fluorescent lighting; only Sweet and Kidman showed up. The snow had apparently scared off the other candidates. Those in the room quickly agreed it would be best to reschedule the event. Within 30 minutes, the event hosts collected all the chairs and everyone trickled out of the building to brave the storm.

But Maine is a small state, and even small actions here by small groups stand out. As the months grow even colder, people like Follayttar and Fogg will continue to push their message, even if sometimes the chairs around them are empty.

Senior Editor, GEN by Medium. Previously: Pacific Standard, Wired

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