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Counting votes cast in Maine's marquee Senate race will be complicated this fall by a likely surge in mail-in ballots and its voting system.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins needs majority support, not just a plurality of the votes, if she wants to win her fifth term after first being elected to Congress in 1996.

That's because, for the first time, Maine's Senate race could be decided by ranked-choice voting.

And it won't be an easy task for Collins.

Fresh off her first debate last week and a new attack ad this week, Collins, 67, trails Maine's Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon, 48, by an average of 6.5 percentage points, according to polls compiled by RealClearPolitics. But some surveys, including one released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University, put her behind her challenger by 12 points.

“The tide has turned on Sen. Susan Collins, who was so popular in Maine that she won nearly 70% of the vote the last time she ran. Likely voters are sending the message that there’s no ‘middle of the road’ when it comes to President Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the state,” Quinnipiac polling analyst Mary Snow said.

That public opinion could present problems for Collins if the contest hinges on ranked-choice voting, essentially an instant run-off mechanism approved in 2016, but that still faces legal challenges in Maine thanks to Republican lawsuits.

University of Maine professor Amy Fried explained ranked-choice voting would only come into play if no candidate earns 50% support based on first preferences. She used the example of a voter who is for "Medicare for all" and "Green New Deal" but against Collin's reelection.

"Such a voter could rank first the only candidate holding those positions, Green candidate Lisa Savage, and then rank Sara Gideon after Savage without being concerned that this vote choice would help Collins win," Fried said. "Without ranked choice, such a voter might refrain from voting for Savage, who most represented the voters' positions, because the voter was concerned about the ultimate impact of this choice."

While national rhetoric surrounding universal mail-in voting and absentee ballots has caused confusion, Fried wasn't concerned about similar issues arising with the ranked-choice process.

"There were fewer spoiled and blank ballots in the 2018 ME-2 race than in previous years before ranked-choice voting was used," she said. "The ballot instructions clearly state that voters can rank as many candidates as they wish. In 2018, in the ME-2 race, the most common ranking was a single vote for Republican Bruce Poliquin."

Two years ago, Poliquin attracted 46.3% support on Election Day, triggering a ranked-choice tally. Democratic Rep. Jared Golden emerged the victor with 50.62%.

A Democratic official told the Washington Examiner that Republicans didn't like ranked-choice voting because it became a highly partisan policy when it was first debated and introduced. GOP voters tend to select one candidate, giving Democrats, third parties, and independents a structural advantage, the official said.

Even if his base is small, having pro-Trump independent Max Linn on the ballot doesn't help Collins either because he could split her support, and his backers are unlikely to preference her since Republicans tried to force him out of the contest.

Democrats require three to four of the 23 Republican-held seats up for grabs this cycle to claw themselves back into power in the Senate.

With Democrats predicted to lose Alabama and Republicans anticipating defeat in Arizona, Maine is one of six GOP-held seats considered too close to call by the Cook Political Report. Maine joins Colorado, Iowa, Montana, and North Carolina, as well as the regularly scheduled Georgia Senate election, as Democrats' best pick-up opportunities.

Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner is trailing former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper by high single-digit margins in polls. Hickenlooper stretched his lead to 10 points in an internal Global Strategy Group survey published on Monday.

Georgia Republican Sen. David Perdue seems to be on safer ground, ahead of Democrat Jon Ossoff by an average of 4.3 points, according to RealClearPolitics. But in North Carolina, the incumbent is at risk. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis is behind Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham by an average of 3.3 points.

The races are closer in Iowa and Montana. Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is basically tied with Democrat Theresa Greenfield, separated by an average margin of 0.3 points. In Montana, Republican Sen. Steve Daines has slightly more breathing room, with an average 2-point berth between himself and outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

Despite the tight contests, Democrats, such as former Charlottesville, Virginia, Mayor Michael Signer, are optimistic.

"The Democratic Party is poised for a historic 'wave election' on par with the 1974 elections that followed the scandal of Watergate, one that could sweep Democrats into office in both the House and Senate," the lawyer and author told the Washington Examiner.

Signer pointed to precedents set by the 2018 midterm elections and Virginia's local and state elections due to anti-Trump sentiment and the recruitment of qualified, well-funded Democratic candidates.

"The recent revelations about Trump's contempt for the military, his corruption, his penchant for supporting political violence by his supporters, and his deception of the public on COVID-19 are just more proof of the structural weaknesses that have mired him at 40% approval rating and about 10 points behind Joe Biden in national polls for months," he said. "His erratic, harmful, and self-dealing governance, the fact that, as Bob Woodward observed, he just is not the right man for this job."

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Northern Maine Airport to Make Improvements With Federal Aid

HOULTON, Maine (AP) — An international airport in far northern Maine plans to use more than $4 million in federal funding to make improvements.

The money is coming to Houlton International Airport via the U.S. Department of Transportation's Airport Improvement Program and the CARES Act. Republican Sen. Susan Collins said the airport is struggling financially because of a downturn in traffic caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The airport will use $4.4 million to reconfigure the existing taxiway, Collins said. She called the airport “a vital part of Aroostook County's infrastructure.”

The airport is located astride the border with the Canadian province of New Brunswick.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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