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Susan Collins and the Death of the Senate

The longtime senator is in the electoral battle of her life. But it’s not only her legacy that’s at stake.

The political epitaph for Susan Collins of Maine, who is in the fight of her career to keep the U.S. Senate seat she has held since 1997, may well read: “Susan Collins is disappointed.”

Collins’s perennial “disappointment” with the president has become the mocking refrain of super-cut-style political attack ads, New York Times opinion headlines, and a million or so tweets. It also is shorthand for the kind of fecklessness that has defined the Republican Party in the Donald Trump era, in which congressional Republicans have prioritized the base that loves the president over the responsibilities of the legislature—and, especially, the norms of governance that a so-called moderate like Collins would have been expected to defend.

Since Trump assumed office, Collins has received an outsize share of coverage for her theatric deliberations, based on a decades-long mainstream media fixation on “civil” Washington. This tendency both helped create her reputation as a moderate and perpetuated the fallacy of a predominant political middle. For years, Collins benefited from this particular spotlight. But in 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, record unemployment, and racial unrest—and now a confirmation battle to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that could consolidate Republican control over the Supreme Court for a generation or more—the spotlight is starting to burn.

The fallacy of the Senate moderate began to fall apart during the Obama administration, when politicians like Collins hemmed and hawed over what was once ideologically moderate legislation like the Affordable Care Act (modeled on the ur-moderate Mitt Romney’s universal coverage plan in Massachusetts), before invariably voting against it along with the rest of the GOP conference. The fallacy now lies in tatters, as Collins’s empty words in response to Trump’s various offenses—from separating children from their families at the border to promoting fake science and conspiracy theories in the face of a virus that has claimed hundreds of thousands of American lives—are only matched in their cowardice by her critical votes in support of his agenda.

Collins most notably supported the controversial confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, despite her long-standing claims of supporting the right to an abortion. Her decision to side with Republican leaders in this crucial test of her independence continues to haunt her in Maine. This might explain why she has indicated that she opposes the preelection timing of a Senate vote on Trump’s nominee to replace Ginsburg, Amy Coney Barrett, who could very well help to overturn Roe v. Wade. In typical Janus-faced fashion, Collins has made a process argument about a Supreme Court confirmation fight before the election, while affirming Trump’s right to nominate Ginsburg’s successor—a position that likely has no true constituency and leaves open the possibility for her to join Republicans to fill the seat after the election, if necessary.

Joe Biden, perhaps the Senate’s biggest cheerleader in mainstream Democratic politics, likes to say that everyone in Washington should try to see what each state’s people see in the senator they send to Washington. In the case of Collins, this lens is proving instructive: She has hovered around 40 percent in publicly available polls for her upcoming election fight against Democrat Sara Gideon, after winning her last election in 2014 with nearly 70 percent of Maine’s vote.

With Collins’s career in an apparent nosedive, it’s fair to ask: Do the voters of Maine feel that Collins has changed? Has she changed? Or have the circumstances of the Trump administration just shed a different light on who she has been all along? These questions have been asked of other Republican politicians, and vanishingly few have come off well under scrutiny. But to focus strictly on Collins’s legacy is to miss the biggest question of all: Can the Senate, as an institution, remain viable after November, having been exposed under Trump as being as much a part of the moderate fallacy as she is?

Collins’s status as an archetypal moderate senator is in part informed by a kind of mysticism that surrounds the political figures of Maine. For more than 75 years, Maine has prided itself on being a cradle of effective, independent legislators, especially independent female legislators, beginning in 1940 with Margaret Chase Smith—the first woman elected to both chambers of Congress and an outspoken critic of McCarthyism at a time when most of her male GOP colleagues did not show the same backbone. This heralded lineage extends all the way down to Olympia Snowe, who also served more than three decades in Congress, including in the Senate for 16 years with Collins, and often bucked Republican leadership before retiring in 2013.

But the similarities between Collins and Snowe have always been exaggerated. In my near-decade covering the Senate, I saw Snowe and Collins get flattened by the media into one person, in part because they were both women serving in the Senate together from the same state—a rarity, to be sure, but two men from the same party and state would never have been treated that way.

Snowe’s retirement, combined with the rise of Trump, showed voters in Maine a different Collins. She opposed Trump’s candidacy in 2016 but retreated to a more ambiguous position this election cycle, making headlines this summer when she told a group of reporters, and later reiterated in a national television appearance, that she does not intend to endorse or oppose Trump’s reelection campaign.

“I was not up for reelection,” Collins explained to reporters, when asked what had been different back in 2016. “I didn’t have my own race to worry about at that point.” Pressed later by CNN, Collins said: “As I said, I have a difficult race. And I am concentrating my efforts on that race.”

Collins has often cited Senator Margaret Chase Smith, pictured here with Lyndon Johnson in 1957, as her role model as an independent legislator. Critics say Collins is no Chase Smith.
Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/ Getty

It’s this kind of obfuscation that has increasingly defined Collins, both in terms of her relationship to the president and her dealings on Capitol Hill. If this is independence, it is a very mealy-mouthed variety, frustrating Mainers who would normally back a lawmaker who genuinely thinks for herself. Maine has recently seen a wave of prominent Republican legislators, political staffers, and groups either opposing Collins specifically or defecting from the GOP entirely.

There was a late-August piece from a former Republican state representative in the Bangor Daily News, “Why I Became a Democrat After 33 Years of Being Republican.” Three days later, Olympia Snowe’s longtime aide and former chief of staff, Jane Calderwood, published an opinion article in the Portsmouth newspaper explaining why she opposed Collins’s reelection.

“Sadly, I can no longer support Senator Susan Collins. She has proven unwilling to stand up to the President and too enamored of political power to speak up for the good people of Maine,” Calderwood wrote. “I am tired of hearing about how ‘concerned’ she is. These times demand strength and action and she has shown neither.”

It’s possible that this is the way Collins has always been. When Snowe retired in 2013, it in many ways freed Collins to be more herself: someone who followed the lead of party heads and was more inclined to build political power through the traditional party structure.

“Olympia just wanted to legislate,” Calderwood told me. “She was always looking for the best answer, and if she didn’t have it, she’d work with someone else. And if the leader didn’t like it, you know, tough nuts. Trent Lott and Mitch [McConnell] and Bob Dole have some of the bruises to prove that.”

She added, “In my time there, Senator Collins tended to give a little more deference to the leadership.”

This has been evident in Collins’s voting record, which does not confirm her alleged independence, but places her squarely in the Trump rank-and-file. In nearly four years, Senate Republicans have balked on impeachment; gutted Obamacare; passed huge tax giveaways to the rich; confirmed judicial nominees rated as unqualified for the bench by the American Bar Association; and looked the other way as the administration circumvented constitutional requirements to appoint a slew of unconfirmed acting officials, including most notably the leaders of the Department of Homeland Security, who spent the summer dispatching department forces to teargas peaceful protesters across America.

Collins sided with Trump and the GOP on nearly every one of these issues. She has aligned with Trump and the Republican leadership approximately 90 percent of the time since he assumed office.

Her inability to stake out ground for herself is defining an election that Amy Fried, professor and chair of the department of political science at the University of Maine, says is “by and large a referendum on Susan Collins.”

“It’s really about Collins,” she told me. “Trump and Collins.”

In one sense, the Maine Senate race is playing out like every other race in the country: along party lines, with voters either pulling the lever for Trump and his party or the other side. This dynamic alone would make it difficult for Collins to negotiate a third-way strategy. Condemn Trump, and Collins risks losing a chunk of her base. Embrace Trump, who is polling at 39 percent in the state, and Collins loses the voters who previously split their tickets to send her to Washington. There is no escaping this trap, no matter how many ads she runs taking credit for the Paycheck Protection Program and the benefits it brought to Maine small businesses navigating the pandemic-induced economic crisis.

Collins was long seen as being virtually identical to her former colleague from Maine, Olympia Snowe, but Collins always showed a greater deference to the GOP leadership.
Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images

But her situation is made all the more difficult by a seismic shift in the mechanics of voting in Maine: This November will be the first time Collins, in her 24 years in office, will appear on the ballot since Maine approved ranked-choice voting, sometimes referred to as instant run-off voting.

Unlike every other Republican seeking federal office nationwide, Collins cannot win reelection with a plurality of the vote. In Maine, since the 2018 midterm, the winner for a federal office must take a majority of the vote outright—and if she doesn’t, then voters’ next-ranked choices get reapportioned to determine a winner.

Collins’s low polling, which shows her dropping nearly 30 points in one term, would be a big enough hole to climb out of. But it’s especially daunting when there’s a pro-Trump, populist candidate who can siphon away Republican votes, and whose followers may not rank her second after him.

“Even if she were to end up a little ahead of Gideon [on Election Day],” said Fried, the election expert, “if she doesn’t have a majority, the ranked-choice process would kick in, and the Secretary of State would be examining all the ballots to look at the third- and fourth-place candidates.”

She added, “It’s much more likely that the second-choice votes are ultimately going to go to Gideon rather than Collins. There’s a Green Party candidate who is closer to Gideon and a populist, Trump-y candidate who says he’s the only candidate who is explicitly pro-Trump.”

There is some evidence that Collins has reason to worry. In 2018, the Republican incumbent in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, Bruce Poliquin, won a plurality of the votes on first count (46.4 percent, several points higher than Collins is polling), but lost to Democrat Jared Golden via ranked-choice voting. Poliquin sued to overturn the results in federal court by challenging the constitutionality of ranked-choice voting, but a district judge—appointed by Trump—upheld the results.

Where the election in Maine does more closely reflect national politics, however, is in how the Democrat, Gideon, is running her race. Much like Biden at the top of the ticket, Gideon is not doing much to proactively define herself beyond “generic Democrat” or to claim that a vote for her is more than a vote against Collins and Trump. With polls trending in her favor, and with traditional campaigning largely suspended because of the coronavirus, this approach seems to be working just fine. Despite running in one of the highest-profile Senate races in the country, Gideon’s role at the Democratic National Convention in August was reduced to introducing a musical act. The words “Susan Collins,” “Supreme Court,” “Brett Kavanaugh,” and “Mitch McConnell” were never uttered.

Locally, Gideon is not nearly as well-known as Collins. Though she is the speaker of the House of Representatives, members of the Maine legislature are subjected to term limits (four two-year terms), which makes it hard to build a record or name recognition in Maine. Collins has tried to raise Gideon’s profile by going negative, complaining to Politico in October that Gideon was using “falsehoods” to “convince the people of Maine that somehow I am no longer the same person,” while pointing that Gideon only moved to Maine about 15 years previously. Gideon, perhaps wisely, declined to comment.

One of the most definitive pieces of proof that this race has been thoroughly nationalized—and that it ultimately will boil down to an “R versus D” election, bucking Maine’s political history—is money. The Maine Senate race is projected to cost approximately $100 million, with the vast majority of money for both major candidates being raised from out-of-state donors. This is an especially stunning figure when compared to Maine’s population of just more than 1.3 million people—a rate of nearly $80 per vote.

Collins likes to remind voters that Margaret Chase Smith was one of her greatest influences. She met the fabled Maine senator on a high school trip to Washington and later claimed her as a mentor. The shadow of Chase Smith haunts Collins now, as many of Maine’s voters have turned on her for failing to act the way Chase Smith might have done.

“Margaret Chase Smith was the role model because she told the good ole boys to go, you know, somewhere else when it was necessary,” Calderwood said. “I wonder sometimes why [Collins] doesn’t do that more often. When it’s time to fish or cut bait, as we say up here, she likes to cut bait.”

But the ghost that likely haunts Collins is larger than any one individual—the ghost of what the Senate used to be, despite its flaws, and what it may never be again without radical changes to how it operates, like the elimination of the legislative filibuster.

Calderwood, who spent nearly two decades on Capitol Hill, is more pointed in her criticism of the Senate itself than even of Collins. “The Senate is not a perfect body,” she said. “It can do better. I’ve seen it do better, even under difficult circumstances. And I’m very disappointed in my old institution.”

The Senate was designed by the Framers of the Constitution to be, in the words of James Madison, a “necessary fence” against “the fickleness and passion” of the public, as represented by the House of Representatives. George Washington is said to have compared the Senate to a saucer to “cool” the “hot tea” of legislation from the lower chamber.

In the most generous reading of the Founding Fathers, the Senate was where, to use modern parlance, “the adults in the room” kept radicals in check, especially in the nascent years of the republic. But another view is that the Senate always was designed to subvert the will of the people and protect the interests of the powerful, starting with issues like slavery and extending to modern-day injustices that favor rich corporations and their lobbies. Now that we are living through one of the most tumultuous moments in American history, in which the future of the democratic experiment hangs in the balance, the latter view seems the more convincing.

If the role of the Senate moderate was once to cool the passions of the rabble, it is now to provide cover for the extremism of Collins’s party—to utter empty words in bad faith while abandoning her duty to act as a check on the executive branch. If Collins’s moderation is a fiction—and it is—that means the Senate, as currently constituted, has outlived any use it once had.

The fall of Susan Collins, in this respect, is not just a sign of the Republican Party’s demise. It is also a warning for Biden, who remains overly enamored with the legislative body in which he served for 36 years. Biden’s reluctance to condemn the Republican Party, which he continues to assert is full of his “friends,” is naïve. Republicans leveraged a decades-old floor speech of his to steal a Supreme Court seat in 2016. They led a sham investigation of his son in line with Russian propaganda. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will do everything in his power to confirm a Supreme Court justice regardless of what happens in November. The Senate, contrary to Biden’s stated beliefs, cannot overcome years of cynical partisanship with a little bipartisan grease and a handshake.

Collins is the foremost evidence that there is no one on the other side to shake an outstretched hand. The Republican Party is broken, and because of that, so, too, is the Senate. Perhaps the best-case outlook for Collins’s political legacy is that her defeat this fall convinces Biden and the rest of his party that the Senate they once knew is dead. If Democrats win back the White House and the Senate, they will need to accept this truth in order to rebuild the government Susan Collins, with feigned disappointment, watched burn.