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Susan Collins may be in trouble. For the first time in her career, the moderate Republican senator from Maine is facing sustained anger from a substantial number of voters at home. She’s dropped from the second most popular U.S. senator, as measured by polls, to the second most unpopular.
Her situation raises the issue of whether there’s room for centrists in today’s increasingly partisan politics.
“I’m really disappointed. And you’ll hear that’s what the tenor is around here,” says voter Cheryl Clukey of Augusta, Maine.
Some say that Senator Collins in recent years has become less attentive to local voters. But if there is one thing that has sparked her decline in popularity, particularly among women, it’s her deciding vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
The vote went against her moderate image, say critics, given Justice Kavanaugh’s own views and allegations against him of sexual assault. To Democrats it’s overshadowed Senator Collins’ votes supporting “Obamacare” and her leadership in ending government shutdowns.
“To us, she is out of step with what we want,” says Marie Follayter, director of the political group Mainers for Accountable Leadership.
Sen. Susan Collins has long seemed unbeatable.
Despite being a Republican in a state that leans slightly Democratic, she has handily won every reelection since her entry to the Senate in 1996. During her most recent race in 2014, Senator Collins won every county in Maine by at least 24 percentage points. She’s frequently named the most bipartisan senator, and has long been a political icon in her state.
But her political position has changed. Senator Collins has gone from the country’s second-most popular senator, to the second-most unpopular in 2019, right behind Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Cook Political Report shifted its forecast of Senator Collins’ race from “lean Republican” to “toss-up” in August.
In the age of President Donald Trump and the increasing political polarization of the Republican and Democratic parties, the national space for moderates like Senator Collins has shrunk. Senator Collins seemed to be one of the last leaders in Washington standing on a centrist island between the two parties, and Maine voters, who prize themselves on independent thinking, loved her for that. But in 2020, there may no longer be enough land on the island for Senator Collins to stand.
“I was always really proud of the idea that I could vote for two Republican women,” says Emily Qualey, a Democrat from Portland, Maine, referring to Senator Collins and former Sen. Olympia Snowe. Ms. Qualey, who says she has voted for Senator Collins since she turned 18, traveled to Washington on an overnight bus in October in hopes of meeting with Senator Collins about Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Since his confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court she has been active in a group raising funds for Senator Collins’ Democratic opponent in 2020.
No longer can she vote for a GOP Senate candidate, she says. Among the reasons: the partisan split on “Me Too” and women’s stories of sexual harassment.
“We are in such an incredible time when voices are being heard who haven’t been,” says Ms. Qualey. “Senator Collins should be using her experience to make the kind of difference the world needs right now.”
The election is still more than a year away, and Senator Collins hasn’t announced that she is running. But if she does run, the 2020 race – projected to be the most expensive in Maine’s history – is shaping up to be her toughest yet. Senator Collins’ seat is considered pivotal to Democrats’ efforts to regain the Senate, and she will be on the Republican ticket with President Trump in a state that some pundits consider a swing state. At least four Democrats have announced challenges – challenges that, in past years, they might have considered futile.
“When you’re a thoughtful moderate, it’s rare that 100% of the people are going to agree with you 100% of the time,” says Kevin Kelley, a Collins campaign spokesman. “But what Mainers appreciate about Senator Collins is that even when they may not agree with her decision, they know that she took the time to study the facts, and votes with integrity.”
Flame of frustration
Voters that aren’t registered as Democrats or Republicans are the largest voting bloc in Maine, and much of Senator Collins’ past success as a Republican has hinged on attracting these independents, as well as moderate Democrats. But after at least two dozen interviews with female Democrats and independent voters across Maine, it’s clear that the senator would face unprecedented headwinds to maintain her seat. While they say they’ve always voted for Senator Collins in the past, these interviewees say 2020 might be the first election they choose not to support the four-term incumbent.
“I’ll have to think really hard if I’m going to vote for her again,” says Cheryl Clukey while soaking up the last of the summer sun with her friend along the Kennebec River in Hallowell. “I’m really disappointed. And you’ll hear that’s what the tenor is around here.”
They say a small flame of frustration with Senator Collins has been burning over the past few years. Some accuse her of a shrinking schedule of town halls and local events. Others say they’ve written the senator too many unanswered letters or left too many unanswered voicemails. A few pin it to particular events such as her vote to confirm former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or her vote for President Trump’s tax overhaul.
But one event in particular, they say, fanned the flame into a fire.
“Kavanaugh was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Ms. Clukey.
Almost one year after Senator Collins cast the deciding vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh, her vote has remained fixed in Vacationland’s collective consciousness. In a political climate where a typical news story lingers for a median of seven days, and during a presidential administration that has almost weekly crises, it’s somewhat surprising that Mainers’ resentment over Justice Kavanaugh has persisted one year later.
It could be because resentment over Justice Kavanaugh has persisted nationally, too. Just this Sunday, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former housing secretary Julian Castro called for Justice Kavanaugh’s impeachment, following a published excerpt from an upcoming book by two New York Times reporters who investigated allegations of sexual misconduct against the justice as a college student.
“Like the man who appointed him, Kavanaugh should be impeached,” Senator Warren tweeted Sunday afternoon.
But female moderates say Senator Collins’ vote on Justice Kavanaugh has stuck with them not only because of its definitive nature, but also because it so clearly went against what they wanted as constituents and against what she has represented as a leader.
Senator Collins has branded herself as a vocal pro-choice Republican woman and fair representative, calling balls and strikes as she sees them – not how party lines dictate. So they say it feels contradictory for her to endorse a man who has acknowledged that the Supreme Court “can always overrule” Roe v. Wade, and been confronted with several allegations of sexual misconduct himself.
“It’s like if the lady who wrote the book on etiquette went to dinner and didn’t use a napkin,” says Amy Dyer, assistant manager of Frosty’s doughnuts in Gardiner. Ms. Dyer interrupts herself to tell a customer that, unfortunately, Frosty’s has run out of their popular Boston cremes, before adding: “We were shocked.”
Senator Collins’ vote was surprising, say many women, because they have seen the senator make tough calls in the past and they were optimistic that she would do so again. Mainers point to her leadership in ending the 2014 government shutdown, her votes against the confirmation of Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the GOP repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and the military’s ban on openly LGBTQ people, or her vocal decision not to vote for President Trump, as evidence that she might once again challenge today’s partisanship.
“I was holding onto a glimmer of hope that [Senator Collins] was going to surprise us all by putting herself on the line, for the benefit of the many,” says Ms. Qualey.
“I’m an optimist and I’ve seen Collins support women,” says Pam Maus, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Owls Head, and says she has voted for Senator Collins in the past. “Leading up to 2016 she came out with her disdain for Trump and I was encouraged. I was like, ‘This is the Susan Collins I know.’”
But like Ms. Qualey and Ms. Clukey, Ms. Maus says the vote for Justice Kavanaugh was “the last straw.” Ms. Maus has since done some canvassing for the Democratic Party, and says she’s heard from dozens of Mainers who have supported Senator Collins in the past, but plan on voting for her opponent in 2020.
Less patience for a moderate leader
Ahead of her vote last Oct. 6, Senator Collins gave a nearly hour-long speech, announcing that she would vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh despite her “reservations.” As a judge, Justice Kavanaugh has respected legal precedent in regards to two Supreme Court cases that legalized abortion, she explained. And although Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was “sincere, painful, and compelling,” the lack of corroborating evidence raised questions.
It’s likely that Senator Collins would be criticized whichever way she voted on Justice Kavanaugh. It’s also likely that Sen. Collins, who wields considerable power in a divided Senate, was going to be criticized for difficult decisions in today’s Washington even without the confirmation of a contentious Supreme Court justice.
Now, as Maine Democrats and independents feel increasingly scared and angry under the Trump administration, they may have less patience for a moderate leader. In their eyes her brand of moderation is abetting presidential extremism.
“To us, she is out of step with what we want. We want a leader who speaks out.” says Marie Follayttar, director of the political action committee Mainers for Accountable Leadership, from a coffee shop in Portland.
Following Justice Kavanaugh’s nomination by President Trump last year, Ms. Follayttar helped organize protest rallies around the state. She also collected at least 3,000 handwritten notes from Mainers pleading with the senator to vote against Justice Kavanaugh, many of which she has posted on the Facebook page, “Mainers writing Collins.” Many of the women, including Ms. Follayttar, included their own stories of sexual assault. They also debuted a video, “Senator Collins: Be a Hero,” in which female Mainers pledged to unseat her if she voted in favor of Justice Kavanaugh.
To date, Mainers for Accountable Leadership and other local groups have raised more than $4 million in donations for whoever wins the Democratic primary to challenge Senator Collins next November.
Many Maine women, including Ms. Follayttar, say it’s not just the fact that Senator Collins voted for Justice Kavanaugh. Their frustration, anger, and disappointment also stem from how she went about it. They say she didn’t take the time to hear from voters, like their other senator, Angus King, did. They say they found her speech on the Senate floor dismissive and patronizing.
“At many points there were opportunities for her to be a better leader,” says Ms. Follayttar. “I would have been disappointed in her regardless. ... But would the reaction have been so visceral? I don’t know.”
Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Orono, says the race will likely be a tough one. After all, Senator Collins is still a four-term incumbent with substantial campaign funds already on hand, backed by a national party that sees her seat as pivotal to keeping control of the Senate. And Maine Republicans who may have been frustrated with the senator’s centrism before Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation, adds Mr. Brewer, have likely solidified their support just as Democrats have solidified opposition. He says the race will likely come down to independents – the majority of Maine’s voting bloc.
“She has a tough race on her hands,” says Mr. Brewer. “The question I think the senator is asking, and potential democratic challengers are asking, is what percentage of those unenrolled independent voters, who say they have voted for Collins in the past, how many of them will really turn away from her and vote for her opponent in 2020?”
“I actually feel bad for her”
In front of a small, standing-room only crowd in Bangor, Betsy Sweet twists a fake knife into her stomach.
“When Susan Collins voted for Kavanaugh, it felt like this,” says Ms. Sweet, as the crowd nods in agreement. A longtime progressive activist in Maine who most recently ran in the Democratic primary for governor in 2018, Ms. Sweet is running for the Democratic nomination to unseat Senator Collins.
“It was clear she has become the senator of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, not the senator of Maine,” says Ms. Sweet, as a few men in the back of the small storefront let out a whoop. “The path to beat Susan Collins next year is narrow, but it’s possible.”
At least three other Democrats besides Ms. Sweet have announced campaigns for the Senate seat, including the presumed favorite, Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives Sara Gideon. Ms. Gideon has already received the endorsements of groups such as Emily’s List, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The Collins campaign says that Democratic challengers in the past have pushed the notion that women were set to abandon her. Opponents in 2008 and 2014 ran television ads in which female Maine voters said that in the upcoming election they would turn their back on Susan Collins. Both times the senator handily won reelection. “If you have watched the videos, you see that this is a pattern,” says Mr. Kelley.
A Gravis poll from June gave Senator Collins a 14-point lead over Ms. Gideon. It’s a considerable lead, but also considerably less than Senator Collins’ final tally in the 2014 race, which she won by 37 points.
“I actually feel bad for her,” says Ms. Maus. “I think she’s in over her head in toeing the Republican line. She used to be respected for being a moderate and now she doesn’t know how to maneuver.”
This story has been updated to better characterize some of those interviewed.