K.C. Hughes was heading out to the mailbox at his home in Cumberland, Maine, about a week before the election when his neighbor called out a question.
Near Hughes' mailbox was a campaign sign for Susan Collins, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate, and another one for Democrat Joe Biden for president.
"Who put that sign there?" Hughes said the neighbor asked, gesturing to the Biden sign, as if it had landed on there through some act of subterfuge.
"I did!" replied Hughes. A week later, when Hughes went to cast his ballot, he went with the signs in his choice of candidates.
Hughes, a lifelong Republican, was hardly alone in the state in splitting his vote between political parties. In the statewide election, Mainers enthusiastically—and unexpectedly—re-elected Republican Sen. Susan Collins and helped Democrat Joe Biden win the presidency. In Maine's conservative second district, voters split the ticket a different way, voting to re-elect President Donald Trump and Congressman Jared Golden, a Democrat.
"In 2016, not a single state had a split outcome, where the president's party won and a senate candidate of the same party did not," said Dan Shea, who chairs the government department at Colby College. "In 2020, there was one state where it happened: Maine. It's a very odd outcome, given the nature of partisanship these days."
The split vote also may help explain why the polls were wrong. Through 2020, every poll projected that Democrat Sara Gideon would beat Collins, including polls that came out of Shea's department. "We just missed the split-ticket voters," said Shea. In the end, 15 to 20 percent of voters endorsed candidates from different parties, he said.
For Hughes, who is a member of the Citizen Climate Lobby and cares deeply about the environment, voting for Trump was never going to happen. "When you've got a president of the United States who doesn't believe in climate change and doesn't believe in science—and that's not even talking about his bad moral judgement and ethics—I just couldn't do it. I wouldn't," he said.
But in an election that some have called a referendum on climate change, it's unclear how much climate change and the environment influenced the choices of Maine's voters. More likely, said experts who watched and worked on the Maine campaigns, voters were drawn to congressional candidates who appealed to a moderate base but also seemed able to deliver once elected.
At the top of the ticket, those choices had more to do with voters' feelings about President Donald Trump's first administration, and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
For the Collins campaign, that meant maintaining her independence from President Trump, whom she did not endorse. (Roadside signs touting "Trump/Collins" that sought to link the two candidates were actually a tactic by the Maine Democratic Party, whose name appeared in fine print at the bottom of the sign).
For Golden, it meant avoiding the marquis talking points of the progressive side of the Democratic party, while underscoring his own independence, including his votes against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Mainers, to be sure, have a reputation for being independent thinkers.
"It may be that it has to do with both a fondness for the idea of nonpartisanship or bipartisanship in the way Mainers approach politics" and a reflection of "a practical cast of mind," said Ronald Schmidt Jr., a professor of political sciences at the University of Southern Maine.
'She'll Do Right By Maine'
Hughes said he's comfortable with the choices Collins has made as a Senator, even if he doesn't necessarily agree with all of them. He was not a fan, for example, of controversial decisions like her 2017 vote to approve a tax bill that resulted in opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. But he also said he understands the political "horse trading" that goes on behind major bills, adding that he trusts that Collins will do right by Mainers and the environment in his state, and that confidence keeps his vote secure.
It doesn't hurt that his business also produces campaign gear for the Portland area. In 2020, his small embroidery and printing business made 5,000 signs, 2,000 t-shirts and 15,000 bumper stickers for the Collins' campaign. He said that his business relationship with Collins did not affect his vote and that he has been vocal with her staff when he disagrees with her position.
In conversations both on and off the record (people in Maine largely prefer to keep their politics to themselves), other split-ticket voters described having a similar faith in Collins. She might sometimes make decisions in Washington that they don't agree with, they said, but they trust she'll do right by Maine.
This year, Collins won by a far smaller margin than in 2014, when she received 68.5 percent of the vote. But Gideon, who the Collins campaign branded with the most derogatory descriptor a Mainer can give—being "from away"—failed to convince voters that she would also deliver for the state. Gideon is from Rhode Island and moved to Freeport in 2004.
Abigail Douglas, a Republican from Freeport, Maine, said she voted for Joe Biden because she couldn't stomach Trump's stance on most things (minus a few stand-outs, like his approach to China) and felt as if Biden was a "decent man" who would get the country back on track.
But she has always supported Susan Collins, and said she was happy to do so again, despite pressure from her daughters and a close friend, who urged her to rethink her position after Collins voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
"The state of Maine needs Susan Collins," Douglas said. "For jobs, for projects—whatever. The state needs her." It's not lost on her, or on other Maine voters, that Collins is next in line to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, provided Republicans hold onto a majority in the Senate.
Though climate didn't drive Douglas to the polls, she said she "can't wait to get back into the Paris Agreement" under Biden. "I live in this beautiful place," said Douglas. "Mother nature is my neighbor. It seemed like Trump and his loyal foot soldiers were all business, business, business. And I worry about my grandbabies and what kind of world they're going to have."
Though Biden's ambitious climate plan addresses many of the needs outlined by progressives in the party, his legacy as a senator shares some similarities with Collins, which speaks to Maine voters, said the University of Southern Maine's Schmidt. "Biden tried to craft a legislative identity that is pretty similar to the one that Sen. Collins tried to craft: A person of the middle who tries to find paths toward compromise."
He added, "To a lot of voters who are concerned about the environment but don't spend a lot of time doing the homework, it can look too big or difficult to master. I think both President-elect Biden and Sen. Collins suggest people who, in a very particularly pragmatic way, can try to get a handle on these issues."
While the polls might have overlooked the Biden-Collins voters, those who were campaigning did not. The League of Conservation Voters focused intently on that voting group, hoping to pull Democrats who had voted for Collins in the past over to Gideon's camp.
"We focused on two messages," said Megan Jacobs, the national campaigns director for the League of Conservation Voters. "We talked about her support for Trump, and her having sided with Trump more than 90 percent of the time. And then we talked about her ties to the oil and gas industry."
While Jacobs felt that Collins' support had clearly eroded from past elections, she said she feels that Maine represents a unique case.
"These voters care deeply about climate and environmental issues, but they have known her for a long time and trust her and think that she's going to do the right things on these issues," Jacobs said. "We hope that they're right."
Theodore Roosevelt Conservatism
When Democrat Jared Golden ran for Maine's second district congressional seat in 2018, the race was so close it resulted in the first-ever use of ranked choice voting—a mechanism that allows voters to rank their preferred candidates and which eliminates the influence of third-party candidates—to determine the winner. In the end, Golden eked out 50.5 percent of the vote in that election, earning 139,231 votes.
This year, he increased the margin to 53.5 percent, at the same time that Trump won 52 percent of votes in the district, earning an electoral college vote. (Maine and Nebraska are the only two states that split electoral votes among candidates).
How did Golden increase his share of votes in a district that showed up for Trump?
"It's just the connection. He has this personal relationship with constituents," said Bobby Reynolds, who served as a general consultant to Golden's campaign and previously worked for Collins, as well.
Golden also deliberately avoided some land mines, which kept him from alienating Trump voters.
"Democrats wanted you to talk about Biden all the time, and Black Lives Matter and systemic racism and all this stuff," Reynolds said."Whether those things are true or not, those top of the ticket talking points didn't resonate with folks in these areas."
Reynolds painted a picture of a typical Golden/Trump voter as someone who worked at Bath Iron Works, a major shipyard that largely builds vessels for the Navy and which is a significant employer in the state. "These are blue collar guys—lifelong labor Democrats who drive pickup trucks, love America, hunt and fish and have snowmobiles," he said. "Many live in rural Maine, and it was traditionally a guarantee that 75 percent of the vote on the yard would go to whoever the Democrats were running because they were good on labor issues."
But, Reynolds said, that changed with the rhetoric in recent years. For the Bath Iron Works workers—shipbuilders, many of whom are veterans—the idea of police brutality and systemic racism can be alienating, despite how important they are, he said.
"These families heat their homes with heating oil, commute an hour one-way to work and their snowmobiles need gas," he said. "So they hear this Green New Deal stuff and that it might increase the price of home heating oil, and that's a turnoff."
Suddenly, he said, these voters felt abandoned, which was where Trump, with his "Make America Great Again" slogan, came in. "It may be more rhetoric than actually doing these things, but for people like this, this is a place where Donald Trump can gain a bunch of support"—even among Democrats, Reynolds said.
Golden, in recognizing this, and making his campaign less about vilifying Trump and more about what he could deliver for Mainers, was able to appeal to Trump voters. That included Democrats who had switched parties to vote for Trump, and Republicans.
"Maine has its own tradition of a certain kind of Theodore Roosevelt conservationism," said Schmidt. "Wanting to take care of the environment as a place where you hunt and fish, and because of your relationship with farms and the importance of keeping the waters able to sustain sea life to live on. I think Golden could be understandable to that brand of conservative or Republican voter."