The Susan Collins conundrum

The Susan Collins conundrum
© Greg Nash

Incumbent U.S. senators rarely lose their reelection bids. That’s especially true for senators whose approval ratings have been as high as 78 percent and who’ve won three previous reelections with between 60-70 percent of the vote. That’s the very definition of a shoo-in.

So why — despite those historic past vote tallies and sky-high approval ratings — is Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' Poll: 57 percent of Americans think next president, Senate should fill Ginsburg vacancy On The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami MORE (R-Maine), the moderate Republican running this year for a fifth term, suddenly in a fight for her life? Recent polls suggest she’s neck-and-neck with a little-known Democratic challenger who’s even managed to outraise Collins in the last two fundraising quarters. And Collins’s once lofty state approval ratings — that once elevated her to the most popular sitting Republican senator in the country — have fallen back to earth, down as low as 36 percent, making her the most unpopular senator, below even Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' House to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Republican lawyers brush off Trump's election comments MORE.

So what happened?

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It would be easy — and not wholly unreasonable — to blame Collins’s problems on the man in the White House, whose erratic policies and late-night tweetstorms are weighing like an anchor around the necks of many Republicans up for reelection this year. That’s especially true in a state like Maine, which went with Clinton in 2016 (even though the state’s more conservative Second Congressional District narrowly voted for Trump, earning him a single Electoral College vote).

But Collins’s reelection problems run much deeper than that and have more to do with her carefully honed image as a moderate, independent Republican — an image that conservative voters have always been uncomfortable with and with which the state’s liberal and moderate voters to become increasingly frustrated. As a result, the fine line Collins has always walked between the state’s right-leaning Republicans and her moderate base of Democrats and independents has narrowed to the point of nearly vanishing.

This conundrum has left her image in tatters. Who exactly is Susan Collins, and how does she win a fifth term? Does she appeal to the right to hold on to her conservative Republican base, or will that just make matters worse with the moderate Democrats and independents she’s long relied on for reelection? If she criticizes Trump too harshly, she risks losing those Second District voters who are key to her reelection. But staying silent about Trump — like refusing to say if she’ll vote for him (she didn’t in 2016) — alienates voters in the more populous, liberal southern Maine where Trump’s support is thin.

That “moderate” label on Collins has always been controversial. When she ran for governor in 1994 (against Democratic stalwart Joe Brennan and independent Angus KingAngus KingHopes for DC, Puerto Rico statehood rise Government watchdog recommends creation of White House cyber director position Democrats step up hardball tactics as Supreme Court fight heats up MORE), Collins was sued by right-wing activists who wanted her off the ballot, claiming she wasn’t a legal resident of Maine (a Maine native, Collins had moved to Massachusetts to serve as deputy state treasurer under Joe Malone). To those activists, Collins was a RINO — Republican in name only.

But surprisingly, Collins did no better with some of the state’s well-known, moderate Republicans whose quiet support of King helped propel him to a narrow victory in the governor’s race and handed Collins an embarrassing third-place finish with just 23 percent of the vote. (King is now Maine’s other U.S. Senator and one of two Senate independents.)

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Collins recovered two years later, winning the Senate race against Brennan with 49 percent of the vote. Since then, her carefully constructed maverick image has earned her the support of moderate Democrats and independents and resulted in stratospheric reelection tallies — 68.5 percent in her last election.

But that carefully balanced moderate image, once considered her strength, may now be her greatest weakness.

Many voters, particularly those unhappy with Trump, see Collins’ restrained, middle-of-the-road posture as a ruse. While she talks a moderate game on issues like abortion, fiscal responsibility and health care, she more often than not toes the party line, voting with Trump in some years nearly 80 percent of the time. Her full-throated, all-in defense of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh delighted conservatives but came as a surprise to those who expected her to at least offer some misgivings about his past behavior. During Trump’s impeachment, many Democrats were hoping for a Margaret Chase Smith moment — Collins’ Maine prototype who bucked the party establishment against Joe McCarthy — but instead saw her vote against convicting the president and then credulously claiming that Trump had “learned a pretty big lesson.”

There have been other missteps too. Collins voted for the Trump tax cuts despite its huge impact on the deficit after a pledge from McConnell that legislation would be introduced to mitigate the bill’s hollowing out of Obamacare. That promise never materialized, and Collins said she was “disappointed” — an oft-repeated complaint that is now the subject of ridicule. Despite her pro-choice stance, she’s had no trouble voting for Trump’s nominees to the federal bench who’ve indicated they oppose abortion rights (one of the reasons she’s lost the support of Planned Parenthood, which once called Collins a “champion of women’s health” but has now endorsed her opponent.)

With national funds and endorsements pouring into her opponent’s coffers — even from former allies like NARAL and the Human Rights Campaign — Collins is finding out that being in the middle-of-the-road will eventually get you run over.

Her only hope seems to be to stay on a rightward course to lock up the more conservative Second District and go heavily negative against her opponent, Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon.

It might work, but she may never recover her moderate image. Expect to see Gideon win big in Maine’s southern district and Collins to likely win in the Second. But her margin of victory — whether it’s two points or 10 — will likely determine whether Collins returns to the U.S. Senate.

A Maine native, Dennis Bailey is a veteran of numerous political campaigns and the former director of communications for Gov. Angus King, now an independent U.S. senator. He lives in Washington, D.C.