Collins walks impeachment tightrope

Collins walks impeachment tightrope
© Greg Nash

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsPresident tightens grip on federal watchdogs The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump gets new press secretary in latest shake-up Trump takes heat for firing intel watchdog during pandemic MORE is walking a fine line in President TrumpDonald John TrumpCDC updates website to remove dosage guidance on drug touted by Trump Trump says he'd like economy to reopen 'with a big bang' but acknowledges it may be limited Graham backs Trump, vows no money for WHO in next funding bill MORE's Senate impeachment trial: The moderate Maine Republican has to demonstrate some independence from the president, but she can’t run too far away from him and alienate GOP voters.

One of the most vulnerable lawmakers up for reelection this fall, Collins was the only GOP senator early Wednesday morning to break with her party and back a proposed rules change offered by Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerHealth care workers account for 20 percent of Iowa coronavirus cases Pressure mounts on Congress for quick action with next coronavirus bill Schumer names coronavirus czar candidates in plea to White House MORE (D-N.Y.). 

Collins was also among the small band of centrist Republicans who successfully pressured Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers outline proposals for virtual voting Overnight Health Care: Trump calls report on hospital shortages 'another fake dossier' | Trump weighs freezing funding to WHO | NY sees another 731 deaths | States battle for supplies | McConnell, Schumer headed for clash Phase-four virus relief hits a wall MORE (R-Ky.) to alter the trial rules in favor of greater transparency. 

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Yet Collins also joined Republicans on 10 other votes that blocked Democratic amendments, proving to be a loyal foot soldier on the majority of the votes.

All of these headline-grabbing actions underscored the strange position Collins finds herself in as she seeks her fifth term in the battleground state of Maine, which favored Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump, Biden set for tight battle in Florida We need to be 'One America,' the polling says — and the politicians should listen Poll shows Biden with 6-point edge on Trump in Florida MORE by nearly 3 percentage points in 2016 but maintains strong support for Trump among its Republican base. 

That balancing act is nothing new for Collins, who has burnished a reputation as a moderate — critics say undeservingly — even as she’s historically been a reliable vote for the agenda of party leaders. 

“Susan always does what’s best for her constituents, and then she explains it really well,” Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerLawmakers announce legislation to fund government purchases of oil Infrastructure bill gains new steam as coronavirus worsens GOP senators urge Saudi Arabia to leave OPEC MORE (R-N.D.), a Trump ally, told The Hill on Wednesday. “I’m sure it didn’t hurt her any; I’m sure it helped her. She’s a very courageous Republican.”

Her fellow Maine senator, Independent Angus KingAngus KingTrump takes heat for firing intel watchdog during pandemic We weren't ready for a pandemic — imagine a crippling cyberattack Senators offer bill to extend tax filing deadline MORE, declined to comment about Collins’s political motivations for breaking with her party and Trump, whose disapproval rating in Maine sits at 52 percent, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.

But King praised the rules changes that Collins and Sens. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiLawmakers announce legislation to fund government purchases of oil Oil giants meet at White House amid talk of buying strategic reserves GOP senators begin informal talks on new coronavirus stimulus MORE (R-Alaska) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanPhase-four virus relief hits a wall GOP senator to donate 2 months of salary in coronavirus fight Senators pen op-ed calling for remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic MORE (R-Ohio) helped secure from McConnell during a private lunch on Tuesday. The last-minute changes allowed for evidence from the House investigation to be automatically admitted to the Senate trial and extended the number of days for both the prosecution and defense teams to make their arguments.

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“It was a good change. It solved two of the three problems with the rules,” King, who defeated Collins in the 1994 race for the Maine governor’s mansion, told The Hill. “Unfortunately, it didn’t solve the problem of reversing the witness-calling piece but at least got the record squared away of not [having] such long, 12-hour days” for opening arguments.

Democrats remain highly skeptical of Collins, doubtful she will ultimately side with them on upcoming critical votes to call witnesses and convict Trump.

They say they plan to use her past impeachment remarks — as well as her vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughWisconsin Democrats chair bashes Supreme Court decision on voting: 'I am about to explode' Supreme Court blocks Wisconsin from extending absentee voting deadline A woman accuses Biden of sexual assault — and few liberals listen MORE — to paint the moderate senator as increasingly political and partisan. 

It “speaks to a larger argument about Collins that she has changed during the couple of decades that she’s been in Washington and become more partisan, more political,” said a Democratic strategist. 

The impeachment proceedings in the Senate come as recent polling shows the senator’s support declining among voters in the Pine Tree State. A Morning Consult poll released last week showed Collins as the most unpopular senator in the chamber, with a 52 percent disapproval rating, handing Democrats an obvious opening. 

Collins is facing five Democratic challengers, including Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon.

Moreover, a poll commissioned by Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC dedicated to helping Democrats, found that 51 percent of Maine voters said that if Collins votes to acquit Trump, she would be doing so for political purposes.

The same poll also showed a majority of voters believe Trump abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump shakes up WH communications team The Hill's Campaign Report: Wisconsin votes despite coronavirus pandemic The Intercept's Ryan Grim says Cuomo is winning over critics MORE, a top political rival.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is salivating at the chance to hit Collins over impeachment. The Democrats’ campaign arm this month launched a website drawing attention to remarks Collins made during former President Clinton's impeachment trial in the late 1990s and comparing them to her statements about Trump’s trial in the Senate. 

The website, titled WhatChangedSusan.com, highlights comments from Collins in 1999, when she said she needed “witnesses and further evidence” for the Senate “to get to the truth” so it could carry out its “duty to do impartial justice.”

Collins later voted against impeaching Clinton. 

Republicans say the move by Democrats to bring impeachment into the 2020 election is a miscalculation, arguing that it's not front of mind for voters in Maine. 

“This impeachment thing is going to be a nothingburger,” a Republican strategist told The Hill. “That’s not where the debate is right now” in Maine. 

“We’re talking about ethics. We’re talking about taxes. We’re talking about health care. Those are the issues people actually care about,” the strategist continued. 

Collins has been widely praised for being a maverick figure in the past. She notably bucked her own party in 2017 when she voted against Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. 

However, her vote to confirm Kavanaugh in 2018 led to a number of progressive groups taking aim at Collins, vowing to unseat her. 

The most recent group, Demand Justice, targeted Collins in an ad Tuesday over her vote to confirm Kavanaugh over a year ago. 

“For so long, she when combined with [former] Sen. Olympia Snowe [R-Maine] were these Maine state treasures who had built a lot of trust and a lot of love and a lot of regard in Maine and across the country,” Democratic strategist Jon Reinish told The Hill. 

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“Over the last couple of years, Susan Collins has very, very demonstrably strayed from that past,” he continued. “I don’t know whether it’s true colors coming out at the end of her career or the pressure of having a Republican president, and then being in the majority.”

Still, Republicans say that Collins’s decision on these issues is not necessarily going to cost her swing votes in the state. 

“If someone’s not voting for Susan Collins because of Brett Kavanaugh, they probably weren’t going to vote for her anyways,” the GOP strategist said. 

Jordain Carney contributed to this report.