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Susan Collins faces political land mine with Supreme Court fight

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate confirms Garland's successor to appeals court Bipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right Outrage grows as Justice seeks to contain subpoena fallout MORE (R-Maine) finds herself having to navigate a political land mine as Senate Republicans push to confirm President TrumpDonald TrumpDOJ asks Supreme Court to revive Boston Marathon bomber death sentence, in break with Biden vow Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting DOJ tells media execs that reporters were not targets of investigations MORE’s Supreme Court nominee before Election Day.

The death of Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgOcasio-Cortez says Breyer should retire from Supreme Court Progressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema Juan Williams: Time for Justice Breyer to go MORE has thrown a wild card into the battle for control of the Senate, and poured fuel onto what was already a contentious issue in Maine: Collins’s votes on Trump’s judicial nominees, especially her support for Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughSupreme Court confounding its partisan critics Gorsuch, Thomas join liberal justices in siding with criminal defendant Alyssa Milano says she could 'potentially run' for House in 2024 MORE’s confirmation in 2018.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right Jayapal to Dems: Ditch bipartisanship, go it alone on infrastructure The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Biden's European trip MORE (R-Ky.) hasn’t announced when the chamber plans to vote on Trump’s forthcoming pick, but Republicans appear increasingly eager to finish the confirmation process before Nov. 3. That would force Collins into a high-profile break with Trump just days before the election.

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“I think the one in probably the hardest spot is her. … Not only can you not make everybody happy, but sometimes you can’t make anybody happy,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye.

“They’re damned if you do, and worse if you don’t — and that’s somewhere Collins may find herself,” he added.

In some respects, Collins is in familiar territory at the center of a consuming political fight as part of the Senate’s shrinking coalition of GOP moderates. At 67.5 percent, Collins votes with Trump less than any other GOP senator, according to the political data website FiveThirtyEight.

But the news of Ginsburg’s death comes as Collins is locked in a fierce fight for her political life. And the danger for her is particularly acute heading into November: Though she won more than 68 percent of the vote in 2014, her race is rated a toss-up and, according to a RealClearPolitics average of state polling, Democratic nominee Sara Gideon is ahead by 6 percentage points.

Of the 23 GOP senators defending their seats in November, Collins is the only one who says she does not believe Republicans should vote on a nominee before the election, citing the GOP’s refusal to give Merrick GarlandMerrick GarlandHouse Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists Senate confirms Garland's successor to appeals court Outrage grows as Justice seeks to contain subpoena fallout MORE, then-President Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, a hearing or a vote nine months before the 2016 election.

Collins went a step further with reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday, saying she would vote against a nominee if McConnell holds a confirmation vote before Nov. 3.

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“If there is [a vote], I would oppose the nominee, not because I might not support that nominee under normal circumstances, but we’re simply too close to the election. And in the interest of being fair to the American people — and consistent, since it was with the Garland nomination that the decision was made not to proceed, a decision that I disagreed with, but my position did not prevail — I now think we need to play by the same set of rules,” she said.

Collins is walking a political tightrope. She is one of two Republican senators seeking reelection in a state won by former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNSA leaker Reality Winner released from federal prison Monica Lewinsky signs production deal with 20th TV Police investigating death of TV anchor who uncovered Clinton tarmac meeting as suicide MORE in 2016, putting her political calculations at odds with the majority of Senate Republicans, who view the Supreme Court fight as a boon to rally their base or GOP-leaning voters to their side.

In 2014, Collins carried more of Maine than Trump did in 2016 — 68.5 percent compared to 44.9 percent. But she will need a coalition of Trump and Biden voters to hold onto her seat, a task made more difficult by the Supreme Court hardening battle lines on both sides.

The court fight comes as voters are quick to recount Collins’s support for Kavanaugh, who faced high-profile, decades-old sexual assault allegations that upended the final weeks of his confirmation fight and made it one of the most explosive events in recent congressional history.

“The Supreme Court has already played an outsized role in the Maine Senate race, and the last thing Collins needed was this issue at the forefront again following her controversial 2018 vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh,” The Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor wrote about the impact the vacancy could have on the Senate races.

The courts have bled into the Maine Senate race beyond Collins’s 2018 vote. Gideon knocked the incumbent as recently as Monday over voting “to confirm over 180 of Donald Trump’s unqualified, far-right judicial nominees.”

Collins ran an ad before Ginsburg’s death highlighting her question during the first debate with Gideon where she asked her challenger if she would have voted to confirm Chief Justice John Roberts, who has been a swing vote on key decisions that upheld the Affordable Care Act and sided earlier this year with the court’s liberal justices to strike down a Louisiana abortion law.

But the looming fight over whether Republicans will fill Ginsburg’s seat turbocharges the political reality facing Collins in Maine. A New York Times-Siena College Research Institute poll released late last week but conducted before Ginsburg’s death found that just 38 percent of Maine voters approved of Collins’s vote for Kavanaugh, compared to 55 percent who disapproved.

The poll also found that 59 percent of respondents said they trust Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenFormer Rep. Rohrabacher says he took part in Jan. 6 march to Capitol but did not storm building Saudis picked up drugs in Cairo used to kill Khashoggi: report Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting MORE to pick a Supreme Court justice compared to 37 percent who trusted Trump.

GOP senators say they trust Collins to balance the politics of her state with an explosive national fight that touches on live wires that run through both parties.

“The political dynamics of her state are very different than most of our people who are running this year and she has navigated them beautifully through the years, and so we kind of defer to her and trust her judgment,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSanders won't vote for bipartisan infrastructure deal Bipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right McConnell warns he's willing to intervene in 2022 GOP primaries MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 GOP senator.

A GOP official added that while the looming Supreme Court vote would put some GOP senators like Collins in a “tougher situation,” it could also give her the chance to show off her independence from both McConnell and Trump.

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“Two sides of the coin here: It’s one that energizes the Democratic base … but if you’re someone like Susan Collins it could give you the opportunity to show you are someone who is not beholden by the party,” the official said.

Breaking with Trump, though, on an issue so important to Republicans has also made Collins a target of the president and his allies.

Trump called out Collins in a recent Fox News interview, predicting that she would be “hurt very badly.”

“I think that Susan Collins is going to be hurt very badly — her people aren’t going to take this. People are not going to take it,” he said.

Annie Clark, a spokesperson for Collins’s campaign, said in response to Trump’s criticism that “Collins always does what she thinks is right for Maine and America — no matter which political party is in power.”

But Heye warned that by breaking with Trump, Collins is risking losing the president’s voters without an obvious uptick in support on the other side of the Supreme Court fight.

“If she were to say, ‘I will not vote to approve a nominee, period,’ does anyone who, you know, who constantly points out, ‘Oh, Susan Collins is going to put out a statement that she’s very concerned about X,’ do they give her any credit? They don’t,” he said. “You can’t win without your base.”