Maine Senator Susan Collins says she will vote ‘no’ to confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, since it’s too close to the election, while refusing to say anything critical about how Barrett’s originalist judicial philosophy might imperil a woman’s right to choose.
Collins is a Republican who supports abortion rights, a brand that has carried her to victory four times, but with Barrett’s confirmation all but certain, Collins' longtime balancing act may have reached its tipping point.
The GOP is getting closer to reaching its goal, the overturning of Roe v Wade, the now almost 50-year-old ruling that made abortion legal. Collins is seen as an enabler of that, not a bulwark against it, since her 2018 vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh after a contentious nomination fight when her vote made the difference.
“Susan Collins really can’t please anyone,” says Amy Fried, a political scientist at the University of Maine. Shifting to a ‘yes’ vote would infuriate Democrats and independents, and “if she votes ‘no’ Republicans will be unhappy and some may decide not to vote for her.”
Indeed, “she’s in a tight spot,” says Willy Ritch of 16 Counties Coalition, a progressive grassroots advocacy group in Maine that’s been gunning for Collins. “People who once saw her as deliberate now see her as manipulative and wishy-washy and trying to play both sides. She’s lost a lot of ground and job approval. Her trajectory is inching down slowly but inexorably.”
Collins is trying to showcase her opposition to a rushed vote for Barrett as proof of her bipartisan bona fides, but critics point out she waited until after Senator Mitt Romney said he would vote to advance Barrett’s nomination and it was clear that GOP Senate leader McConnell had the votes to confirm Barrett with or without her.
Once again, Collins got her “hall pass” to cast a ‘no’ vote that wouldn’t matter to her party. But when she could have made a difference in Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, she put the country through an agonizing period of indecision before giving Kavanaugh and her party the vote they needed, an outcome that caused Collins’ numbers in Maine to crater.
For Collins, who won her fourth term six years ago with 69 percent of the vote, this is a harsh new reality she’s navigating. Moderate voters who backed her in the past think she’s too close to Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, and they’ve grown tired of her public agonizing before ending up backing her party when it matters, like it did with the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh and before that her pivotal vote on Trump’s tax cut in 2017, which disproportionately favored wealthier taxpayers.
She’s tried to keep some distance from Trump, but voters who once were part of her coalition won’t forgive her for saying the president had learned his lesson after impeachment. No, he hadn’t, they say, and neither did Collins.
The non-partisan Cook Political Report, which lists the race as a toss-up, has Collins as the third most vulnerable Republican senator after Cory Gardner in Colorado and Martha McSally in Arizona. Democrats have opened up sizable leads in those states. Collins’ job approval number is in the low forties, says Jessica Taylor with the Cook Report. “Then you add in rank choice voting, that could really seal it for her.”
The race in Maine is complicated for the first time by rank choice voting, which the state’s voters adopted in 2016. In addition to Collins and Democrat Sarah Gideon, the current speaker of the state House in Maine, there are two other candidates in the race: Lisa Savage, a teacher, organizer,and grandmother running on the Green ticket; and Max Linn, a retired financial planner and former Reform Party candidate for governor in Florida running as a Trumpian Independent.
Republicans don’t like rank choice voting; they see it as a way to help Democrats win. And in this particular race in Maine, if it’s close, Republicans may have a point. The Green campaign is signaling supporters to list Gideon as their second choice, and in a close race (the Real Clear polling average has Gideon leading Collins, 45.4 to 41.3), those votes could make a difference.
“Delivering for Maine” is Collins’ slogan, and she took credit for writing the provision in the CARES bill that provided forgivable federal loans for small businesses. She took heat for also inserting a provision that allowed big hotel chains and corporations to access taxpayer money, something that the advocacy group 16 Counties has keyed in on.
Still, her reputation for being a key member of Congress who brings home the goods for Maine has kept her competitive in a race where she’s lost much of the cross-over support from Democrats and from Independents that she once took for granted. Gideon’s ads focus on ordinary Mainers who’d voted for Collins in the past, but no more.
“It’s quite a shift,” says Fried, the political scientist, from the stratospheric support Collins once enjoyed to her sub-par standing now. “She’s lost like 25 percent, one in four Maine voters.”
Collins so far has declined to say whether she is supporting President Trump, begging off the question by saying she’s got her own race to run. In 2016, she openly opposed Trump, but at the time he wasn’t expected to win. Now he’s the president, and she’s running on the same ticket with him.
She needs his voters and that may be why she has begun touting her credentials as a lifelong Mainer from Bangor, which is the northern part of the state and Trump country, while Gideon was born in Rhode Island and lives in Freeport, a more cosmopolitan part of the state, 113 miles south.
Gideon is focusing on the threat to the Affordable Care Act posed by Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, along with the threat to reproductive rights. Much of Gideon’s financial support has come from groups that in the past supported Collins. Maine is a secular state where most voters support legal abortions, and for a long time Collins fit the state’s profile.
This year is different, and Collins faces what may prove to be insurmountable odds in her bid for a fifth term.