SKOWHEGAN, Maine — There was a time when it seemed unlikely that a titan of Maine politics could be taken down in a bid for a fifth term in the U.S. Senate by a quick-rising, progressive Maine transplant.
It happened in 1972, when Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, the Skowhegan native and the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress and be nominated for the presidency at a major-party convention just eight years earlier, was upset by then-U.S. Rep. William Hathaway.
In 2020, Sen. Susan Collins could win a fifth term, surpassing the Senate service of Smith, her political role model. The Republican’s seat has been targeted by national Democrats with five challengers, including Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon vying for the nomination to face her.
Collins faces a much different campaign than the one in 1972. She is a more vigorous campaigner than Smith and will be seven years younger than she was. If Collins runs, she will also face a more partisan environment on the 2020 ballot alongside President Donald Trump, whom Democrats are racing to tie her to and is likely to be unpopular statewide.
Still, the 1972 election showed Maine that political icons can be soundly defeated. Here are key factors of the race 47 years ago, with the help of documents held by the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan.
Smith campaigned the same way she always did, refusing to raise money and limiting her travel. Federal candidates spent $425 million in 1972, according to a book co-written by a Colby College professor. When adjusted for inflation, that isn’t much different than the $3.1 billion pegged by the Center for Responsive Politics in 2016, though that race included another $1.7 billion from outside groups.
Smith was behind the time 1972, when polling and TV ads were emerging in state races. She ran on her record with help from dedicated volunteers. She never took campaign contributions, calling the level of campaign spending “disgraceful” in a debate with Hathaway, a World War II veteran who came to Maine from Massachusetts after law school and served four House terms.
Her primary challenger spent $375,000 while only winning a third of votes. In a letter to supporters, Smith said her volunteers showed “the Maine way is reassuringly different” and “we will not lose our separate identity” en route to the general election. It didn’t work again.
Hathaway spent $198,000 on a modern general election campaign that used TV and had a $59,000 advertising budget alone. Smith spent just $14,000 combined in both races and all of her money came from Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, not even using their entire contribution to her primary effort.
The run-up to her run was difficult. William Lewis, her chief aide whom reporter Don Larrabee of the Portland Press Herald called Smith’s “alter ego” had a heart attack in late 1971. Smith — who had set a record for consecutive votes — missed several votes to stay at his bedside.
Otherwise, Smith didn’t believe in missing Senate votes to campaign. She limited herself largely to weekend campaigning while Hathaway barnstormed the state. A 2019 Liberty University thesis said many young people had less affinity for Smith than their parents did.
“[Hathaway] was everywhere and it was so much more noticeable because she just wasn’t there at all,” said Bob Tyrer, who ran Collins’ first Senate campaign in 1996 and entered Maine politics in the 1970s as a staffer for former U.S. Sen. Bill Cohen.
Smith faced a primary establishing largely nonpartisan criticisms that plagued her through Election Day. Smith was 74 years old in 1972. Her primary challenger, businessman Robert A.G. Monks, was about half her age and traveled across Maine for more than a year before declaring. U.S. Sen. Angus King, a Hathaway aide, once told an interviewer Smith later confided to him she hadn’t planned to run again, but did because Monks irritated her.
Monks was aggressive. As part of his high-dollar campaign, he often noted Smith’s age and hit her for not maintaining an office in Maine. The Bangor Daily News quoted him as saying the time she could enjoy her Senate seniority — which Smith often touted as Collins is — was “up to God.” This manifested itself in other ways.
Dale Whitaker, who chaired Smith’s campaign in Auburn, said the 1972 Republican State Convention was marked by an episode in which a wheelchair was left by an entrance to the Augusta Armory with a sign that said “for Margaret Chase Smith.”
Smith had used a wheelchair around the time of hip surgery in 1968, but she was moving well again by this time. Whitaker said the wheelchair still caused confusion as Smith loyalists scrambled to see if she had requested it. It was left there for a while in case she needed it.
“To this day, I’m still bellyaching about that damn wheelchair,” Whitaker said.
In the general election, Hathaway picked up the age issue in a lower-key way by pushing a mandatory retirement age of 70 for members of Congress and term limits. But there was a strong sense that the real damage had already been done by Monks.
“He softened her up and Bill Hathaway really came across as a young statesman,” said Severin Beliveau, a lobbyist who chaired the Maine Democratic Party at the time.
Smith lost with a popular Republican president on the ballot. Hathaway beat Smith in 1972 by a difference of 6.5 percentage points, even though Smith ran alongside Republican President Richard Nixon, who won every state but one in 1972 and got 61 percent of votes in Maine.
Smith, best known for her 1950 “Declaration of Conscience” speech against McCarthyism, had frustrated Nixon early in his first term by opposing two failed U.S. Supreme Court nominees. But she was also a foreign policy hawk who supported him on issues including the Vietnam War. A 1970 episode helped frame her as out-of-touch among young liberal voters.
She appeared at Colby College to address anti-war students and defended the Nixon administration on the war — as retold by The New York Times — including its assertion that no troops had been sent to neighboring Laos. Brownie Carson, a Bowdoin College student who was wounded as a Marine in Laos and is now a Democratic state senator, rose to challenge her.
Hathaway, who was liberal for his party, was anti-war when it wasn’t a slam-dunk issue in Maine. Nixon began his second term with a 67 percent Gallup approval rating that quickly declined as knowledge of the Watergate scandal increased ahead of his 1974 resignation. Trump is at 41 percent approval and Morning Consult found him 13 percentage points underwater here in the year’s second quarter.
Nixon supported Smith going back to her primary. After she beat Monks, Smith told reporters that he called her to say while he “usually runs on people’s coattails but perhaps in my case he will ride in on my slip.” She introduced Vice President Spiro Agnew at the state convention.
After Election Day, Whitaker, who called himself a moderate Democrat and joined Smith’s campaign because he saw her as being “above politics,” said he was “astonished” at Smith’s loss because Republican otherwise won down the ballot to the local offices in his area.
In a letter to a Smith supporter, Lewis had many grievances, including “severely condemnatory and erroneous news articles” and “voter rejection for being too old.” For Smith’s part, she released a terse statement the day after the election congratulating Hathaway and saying she was grateful to the Mainers she served.
“I am even more grateful to my loyal supporters who worked their hearts out for me,” she concluded. “I regret having let them down.”
Related: An interview with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins