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How Susan Collins won Senate reelection in one of 2020’s most competitive races

Running a local, grassroots-style campaign, Susan Collins won a historic fifth Senate term in a nationally targeted race despite being vastly outspent by her opposition.


  • 51%
  • of the vote
  • 417K+
  • votes
  • 5th
  • Senate term


What follows is an interview with Lance Dutson, Principal at Red Hill Strategies, edited for length and clarity.

How did you come to start using NationBuilder, and what role did it play in your work on the Susan Collins campaign?

I've worked with Senator Collins’ organization for the last three election cycles, starting out as digital director in 2008, communications director in 2014, and in a kind of hybrid digital/comms role in 2020 … I've been a web developer in NationBuilder for years, am very comfortable with it, and have always been a very strong advocate for the platform. There aren't very many competitor platforms that aren't custom-built, or [products] like Salesforce that are gigantic and usually cost-prohibitive. I really like the Liquid development back-end, and I think it's super easy to develop in. 

I've used NationBuilder on a lot of other campaigns and with a lot of other clients as well, but the Collins organization is a perfect case study for the product… [Back] in 2008, we had a Drupal website that I built, iContact was our email vendor, our donation platform was something similar to [Paypal], and we used the Zoho contact database. So we had all these different components that didn't really integrate, and [though] the traffic and level of donations in those days wasn't anything close to what it is right now, it was still a huge admin pain to have to integrate these different lists. We actually changed email vendors midstream, because we were [inputting] lists that were flagging for spam too much, so we needed somebody that was going to be able to work with us better. In the discussions that I've had with the Collins team and with other clients as well about why to use a platform like NationBuilder, this is the story. I always tell them that you can have five different vendors that you're trying to keep online, or you can have something that's built for a political campaign in one spot.

One of the things that was very interesting [this cycle] is the continuity that we had using NationBuilder as the back end. With the big interest from third parties and political parties, those groups come with lots of infrastructure themselves. NationBuilder isn't a traditionally Republican platform, so there was a lot of discussion early on about how we house our own data in collaboration with other groups and other databases. We made the decision to stick with NationBuilder, which we had used and were happy with in 2014, and had kept continuity for volunteer signups, donations, and things like that between cycles. So we ran our internal field operation through NationBuilder as well as the front end of signups and website.

At the end of the day, we had a system that has continuity over election cycles and that our field team was able to easily use. There were a number of folks working in our field operation that had worked with me on other projects using NationBuilder, so there was a baseline familiarity. That ended up being very helpful.

Given the national attention on this particular race and how the pandemic affected all organizing in 2020, what were the ways your digital strategies had to evolve compared to other campaigns you've worked on in the past?

Certainly, the pandemic was a total game changer. The only thing that kept anybody sane during it from a political standpoint was understanding that the other sides were experiencing the same challenges. But Maine’s an interesting state. Because we're a very small, sparsely populated state, there's only so much money you can spend in Maine on television or the internet, so it became clear very quickly that all broadcast media and paid marketing inventory was going to be sold out at some point. So then, how do you get a leg up on that? The next logical wave is assigning person-to-person contact—probably both sides were looking at that very closely. Our state has a million people, and geographically it's a gigantic state. So, door knocking [is] only possible in densely populated areas, and there's only a couple of them. 

But then COVID hits, and you can't do any of that. So now, you've got even more of a premium on paid media, and there's just not that much of it. Then the general sense of: how political do you get during a pandemic? Which I think is a question that weighed on everybody's minds. Just like after a tragedy, there's this cooling off period where groups pull their ads for a certain period of time. If you're stuck at home and unemployed, you don't know what the future is going to bring because the world is collapsing, and someone calls you up asking if you want to make a donation to a candidate—that can go the wrong way really quick. So those kinds of delicate considerations had to be made. Organizing with lists and making sure that the discussions were happening with the right people, and that they were appropriate for the time in history, was a big challenge. I'm sure all campaigns had to deal with that same thing. 

Maine is different in a lot of ways—there's a kind of a homegrown sense of pride here. When DC groups come up, it usually isn't reacted to very well; we don't like our politics getting taken over by the national discussion. And that was kind of the core battle that happened in this campaign. Our opponent was [Sara Gideon], the Speaker of the House in Maine, but we have a small volunteer legislature up here, so she was relatively unknown statewide, versus a long-time incumbent senator with national prestige. The only reason this race ended up being at all competitive was because of this huge amount of money that came from out of state because they sensed that there's an opportunity here. Senator Collins has faced this every election year since she was first elected. Rather than things necessarily being a criticism of her as a candidate, the national groups try to elevate the national issues to be prominent up here. 

So, there's a challenge in organizing and infrastructure where, if we made a billion phone calls to every single voter, that was going to have one result. But it wasn't going to be a result that would appear homegrown or be thought through in a way that was sensitive to the inclinations of people who live here, our friends and neighbors. Our organization has always prided itself on hiring Maine employees, hiring Maine vendors, sticking on the ground here as much as possible. And now, this is the third time that I've watched this happen, that our opponents have made the same mistakes—and that's thinking that you can just pump money in and bring staff from out of state and run this big national campaign [in Maine].

In the digital space, it's very interesting to me, because I don't think people regard digital media as particularly earthy or homegrown, that it tends to be a very rapid medium. Everybody looks at Facebook every day and gets served messages from somewhere else, but crafting those messages to appear more organic and more local is an art form on its own. And, and I think that was a big core of the way that we interacted with voters, both through our organizing and through the distribution of media online, as well.

Are there any specific tactics or types of messages that worked well to preserve the grassroots feel of the campaign?

It’s a tough question, but my opinion is that more faces, more direct voices from people rather than top-down brand messaging is the right way to approach it. In a normal year, you produce media, you find people that will participate in a commercial or web video, and you go to their house, you scout the site, you write a script, and you do all these different things. Then Covid hits, and all of a sudden, you can't do those things, and it's a huge challenge. You can't bring TV crews from out of state or any of that kind of stuff. And I think there's a certain point where we were looking at these screens talking to each other [via Zoom], and realized that if our goal is authentic communication with real people in a way that everybody can identify with—we're looking at it.

I remember in the early days of producing web video, having that discussion about where the line is for production quality versus authenticity. [The pandemic] blew that up in a really interesting way, where all of a sudden, what we're looking at right now is perfectly suitable, and we put television commercials on the air that looked like [Zoom calls]. Being able to get somebody who was a supporter that we wanted to highlight—now, all of a sudden, as long as they had a laptop or a phone, we could produce that media. People are consuming it on their phones now, instead of an HD television on someone's wall. And that means that the power or the tools to produce something that's acceptable—everybody has in their pocket already, so the content has to be important. The message and the connection from real people to real people becomes, finally, more of the focus than all the pyrotechnics of media production.

Can you talk a bit about the victory itself? Maine has the unique situation of using ranked choice voting—how did that affect the campaign? And what are you most proud of, in terms of the milestones reached?

Senator Collins has enjoyed a position as one of the most popular senators in the country for a long time. And Maine is a truly independent state. Up until this year, our independents or unenrolled voters outnumbered either the Republicans or the Democrats. So in order to win a statewide race in Maine, you have to be able to appeal to independents and people from the other party, and she's done that as well as anybody. She's been rated the most bipartisan member of Congress for seven years. And, she's truly fit the political ethos of the constituency up here. But, what changed this time around was this huge influx of money. If you have a million people and you spend $100 million, there's a massive amount of movement that can happen. We're used to campaigns where if someone can spend $5 million, they're going to dominate the airwaves.

Before our campaign was up and running, tens of millions of dollars had already been spent on airing things that were just this side of a political commercial… So there was a really unprecedented injection of money into the state that tightened the senator’s approval ratings versus any particular opponent, more so than had happened in a long time. We were kind of up against a Goliath, which is a funny position for a 24-year incumbent to be in. We've always outraised opponents by a significant amount and won these big victories in the past, and all of a sudden, we kind of took on this underdog status, certainly terms of money, but also in terms of movement.

This strange, parallel thing happened in Maine where, in presidential elections, we split our Electoral College votes by congressional district. So you can lose Maine, but win one of the congressional districts, and still walk away with one electoral vote… This brought the national political narrative into Maine in a bigger way, and it made it complicated to do what the Senator has done in the past, which is to maintain local issues as the focus of the campaign. So we were trying to out-shout our opponent, but also at the same time deal with this other competitive Electoral College battle that was happening in the second district. When you're getting bombed by tens of millions of dollars, numbers are moving, they're not moving in the right way, things are more competitive, and you hear this national narrative that this is a targeted race—it's hard to maintain that local and firm commitment to the same kind of politics that that have been successful in the past.

The thing [I’m] most proud of about the race, from the management of the campaign and from the staff, is being able to maintain the coalition that [we] needed for infrastructural support, funding, and everything else without turning into a Washington, DC political machine. I firmly believe that that's why we won. We kind of had a surprise outcome, depending on where you watched it from. All of 2020, we were behind in every single public poll—and we saw signs that that wasn't the case, all along. If you run for city council in your neighborhood where you have lived [for] your whole life, and then some giant out-of-state group comes in to run an opponent against you, there's going to be a million points of difference, but one of them is how to read the direction of the electorate. We didn't panic; we had a firm sense that the race was going to be very close.

I think the big difference, that was really trickier than any of us could have imagined, was ranked choice voting in Maine. It was the first time that this would have applied in a Senate race; it had applied in a congressional races cycle before, [so we went in] not knowing what the ramifications of that would be. It wasn't good enough for us to win by five points, we had to win significantly to be over 50%, and to keep ourselves out of the ranked choice voting situation… Had we been a point and a half less, if we had come in at 49%, then it would have gotten more complicated.

The solution to all these things was to continue to do what we've always done, which is run a locally focused, issues-based campaign with a candidate who has done right by her constituents for a long time. I think I would have said the same thing six years ago, and six years before that, but the winning recipe in rural states—particularly in Maine—is to not lose contact with the people that you're representing. The mistake that campaigns can make is if they have a strong candidate, and they don't allow that to be the focus; they try to make the candidate into something that they're not or play a different game that they've been forced to play. In this case, I think we stuck to our guns. And Susan Collins has been a fantastic senator for the state of Maine. She's done right by our constituency, and she's trusted. And that's what came out in the result.

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