The Collins Conundrum

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Senator Susan Collins on Capitol Hill on October 3, 2018

Shortly after Brett Kavanaugh unleashed his apoplectic plea for a Supreme Court seat, a small group of women, some dressed in judges’ robes, arrived to protest in front of Senator Susan Collins’s house in Bangor, Maine. Had she been at home, she would have seen the women carrying signs urging her to vote no when Kavanaugh’s confirmation comes up for a vote in the Senate.

Contrast that episode with Mainers’ reaction to seeing Collins at Bangor International Airport last summer. Deplaning from a Washington flight, Collins walked through the arrivals area into a round of applause from the assembled travelers after she’d help defeat her Senate colleagues’ attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. After more than 20 years in the Senate, she savored the once-in-a-career moment.

Today, Collins is once again a pivotal vote on the nation’s future—and her own. After President Trump’s latest diatribe against the college professor who came forward to testify against Kavanaugh, Collins said that “the president’s comments were just plain wrong.”

The cottage industry that has sprung up to ponder the Collins conundrum is national in scope. But the most important audience is hundreds of miles north of Washington. How will Collins, who has two years to go before she faces voters again, should she choose to run, respond to her home-state voters?

The Senate has had its rewards for Collins, and seniority its benefits. She serves on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which gives her the power to steer federal dollars to Maine, a position that a senator from any state, much less the poorest state in the Northeast, would be loathe to give up.

Collins has been a willing ally of President Trump, voting to support his proposals nearly 80 percent of the time. She parted ways with the president three times on Affordable Care Act repeals. On abortion, she voted against repealing a rule that would have denied federal funds to health-care centers that perform abortions and a proposal that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks.

She has never missed a vote during her Senate career. And perhaps most important,  during her tenure she has approved every single Supreme Court nominee regardless of the party affiliation of the president.

So why would Collins sacrifice her position in good standing in Mitch McConnell’s tightly controlled Senate? Because while she may believe Kavanaugh’s assertion that Roe v. Wade “is settled law,” as Kavanaugh told her during a private Capitol Hill interview, many Mainers do not. Since the Kavanaugh announcement in July, Mainers, particularly women opposed to his nomination, have grown more angry and frustrated with Collins’s diplomatic reserve on the confirmation process.

Fearful that Kavanaugh will vote to reverse Roe and a raft of protections in other areas, protesters, now including sexual assault survivors, have regularly descended on her Portland offices. Mainers are also hand-writing letters to Collins, overwhelming her email accounts, and crashing her website.

“I have been doing community organizing work in Maine for 17 years,” says Amy Halsted, co-director of the Maine People’s Alliance, one of the groups raising money for a potential Democratic challenger to Collins in 2020, “and I frankly have seen very few moments like this—if any—with this scale of grassroots energy and activism. And I think that’s because people don’t know what she is going to do.”

On the other hand, Kavanaugh supporters, especially the state’s haranguer in chief, Paul LePage, the outgoing governor, have been curiously subdued. An August Public Policy Polling survey found that nearly half of Maine voters did not think Kavanaugh deserved Collins’s vote—nor would they vote for her again if she did. Add in the possibility of Kavanaugh voting to overturn Roe v. Wade and Mainers are even less likely to support her. A Suffolk University Political Research Center August poll of likely general election voters found that about half of them had a favorable opinion of Collins.

In contentious times like these, Mainers invoke the legendary Republican moderate Margaret Chase Smith, who is effectively the patron saint of Maine politics and a Collins heroine. The first woman to represent Maine in the Senate (and in the House), she stood up to the anti-communist demagoguery of her fellow Republican, Joseph McCarthy. There is some rumbling that Collins needs to live up to the standard set by Smith and finally take a stand against conservative Republican bullies like Trump and McConnell.

In late September, another Maine political legend, former Democratic Senator George Mitchell, also shared his dismay about the Kavanaugh case at a Bangor Daily News forum, reading the remarks he’d delivered when he voted against sending Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court after Anita Hill’s testimony in 1991:

“Perhaps something good may yet come from this terrible episode,” he said, “if the national debate which is generated leads to changed attitudes and leads to a process where serious charges can be evaluated in a more fair and less controversial way, to a society where the words of women have the same weight as the words of men.” But weighing in on the Kavanaugh hearing, he noted, “I’m sad to say we have not changed in respect [to] the process.”

There’s no easy path ahead for Collins. If she votes to confirm Kavanaugh, she guarantees a Democratic challenger, one who already has a potential war chest approaching $2 million, courtesy of a Crowdpac campaign drive launched by two progressive groups, the Maine People’s Alliance and Mainers for Accountable Leadership. The groups raised pledges of donations should Collins vote to confirm Kavanaugh. Oddly, Collins has labeled the effort a “bribe.”

Who might her (already well-funded) Democratic challenger be? Speculation has percolated around State Senator Shenna Bellows, who lost her 2014 Senate race against Collins; Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House; and Betsy Sweet and Adam Cote, two former gubernatorial hopefuls. Normally, they’d have to bring their A+ game: Since 2002, Collins has crushed every opponent. A vote yes on Kavanaugh, however, might well give her challenger a leg up.

Voting no on Kavanaugh, however, would practically guarantee a primary challenge from Maine’s strong pro-Trump forces. Outgoing Governor Le Page might run, or leave it to his wife Ann, whom Trump consigliere Steve Bannon tried to recruit to run against Maine's other senator, Angus King, who’s on the ballot this November and who holds a commanding lead. But taking on King, the popular independent and former governor who caucuses and votes with the Democrats, would have been a suicide mission for either of them. Running in a GOP primary against a damaged Collins would be a different story.

Collins, who is 65, could do the unexpected and retire from the Senate. She has given no indication that she plans to go in that direction, but she would not be the first Maine senator driven out by her party’s war on moderates. Her former colleague and fellow Republican centrist, Olympia Snowe, retired six years ago. “I do find it frustrating,” Snowe said in a 2012 statement, “that an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions. Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term.”

Does the senator from Maine want to give the nod to a potential Supreme Court justice whose display of self-righteous partisan indignation led some of his Yale Law School classmates and his own former clerks to retract their support? By so doing, Collins would also effectively be announcing that she either doesn’t believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s other accusers, or dismisses the significance of their claims. Should she vote no, she will ensure the enmity of her own party. Americans will shortly see which of those considerations she takes more seriously.

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