Flush with cash and riding high on the possibility of unified government for the first time in nearly a decade, progressive advocacy organizations in the closing days of the campaign handed out endorsements to Democratic challengers like shots at a bar. But now that the premature revelry is over, those groups have woken up to the sobering reality that in their excitement over the possibility of a Democrat-led Senate, they may have permanently alienated the few Republican allies they had.
One such group, the Human Rights Campaign, must now contend with having alienated one of the few reliable Republican votes for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights on Capitol Hill—and at one of the most important legislative moments in its history.
And that Republican isn’t in a forgiving mood.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) is one of several vulnerable Republicans who overcame a tidal wave of out-of-state dollars and up-ballot political headwinds to claim re-election victory—despite HRC breaking with her and supporting Democratic rival Sara Gideon after nearly two decades of endorsements. At the time, HRC lauded Collins’ “record of support” for LGBTQ issues, but said that her vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was “simply untenable” with the group’s goals.
“We are fighting for our lives and the only way to advance LGBTQ equality through the United States Senate is to install a new pro-equality majority leader and replace Mitch McConnell,” Alphonso David, the group’s president, said in a statement in July. “Her support of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump’s agenda, endorsement of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court and failure to hold Donald Trump accountable, is simply untenable.”
Collins, who has been a longstanding legislative ally of LGBTQ groups in the past, was reportedly stunned by HRC’s about-face—particularly in light of her vote to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch, another Trump-nominated Supreme Court nominee who later went on to author the majority opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County, which expanded non-discrimination protections in employment to include LGBTQ people.
HRC didn’t just swap endorsements, they went hard against Collins, airing advertisements on Maine television supporting Gideon and hitting the Maine senator for embracing the endorsement of the Christian Civic League of Maine, a far-right anti-LGBTQ group whose former leaders once worked to criminalize homosexuality in the state. Collins described herself as “truly grateful” for the group’s endorsement, which HRC cited as after-the-fact confirmation that their decision to revoke their endorsement was a solid one.
“After years of being an independent voice for Mainers and advocating for the LGBTQ community, Collins has again chosen to pander to the far-right rather than stand by the principles she professed for years,” HRC spokesperson Lucas Acosta said at the time.
Despite the attacks, Collins took pains to distance herself from Trump during the general election campaign, declaring during a September debate with Gideon that “I don’t think the people of Maine need my advice on whom to support for president.” But supporters of Trump’s made it clear that Collins was key to their plans for a second term—regardless of her centrist background.
Trump’s second term has been scuttled. But Collins will be more influential than ever on Capitol Hill next year. With Joe Biden in the White House, Democrats in control of the House, and either Democrats or Republicans with a razor-thin Senate majority, Collins—one of the last swing votes in the chamber—will have the leverage to make or break much of Biden’s agenda.
In other words, there may be no worse possible political environment for the Gideon endorsers’ move to backfire than the one that is currently taking shape.
Bobby Reynolds, a longtime Maine political operative and former staffer to Collins, said that groups like HRC, the League of Conservation Voters, and Planned Parenthood—all of which endorsed Gideon after backing Collins for much of her quarter-century career in the Senate—are categorically on the outs, and will have to work hard to reestablish a working relationship with her.
“She has a memory like an elephant,” Reynolds told The Daily Beast. “Susan Collins will continue to do what’s right… the difference will be, none of these advocacy groups will be able to take a victory lap and say, we worked with Senator Collins… they can’t issue the press release to say, ‘we worked with Sen. Collins to make sure LGBT Mainers are protected.’ They aren’t gonna be a part of the victory lap.”
That spells trouble for the Equality Act, landmark legislation that would guarantee non-discrimination protections in employment, public services, housing and education for LGBTQ people. The bill, which has been introduced in one form or another in nearly every congressional session since the mid-1970s, has never faced better odds for its passage: voters largely support the legislation; House Democrats, who passed the bill handily in May 2019, have maintained control of the chamber; and President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to sign it into law in his first 100 days in office.
But the Biden campaign formed a close relationship with HRC from the moment it endorsed his candidacy in May, farming out LGBTQ voter turnout operations to the organization and frequently conferring with its leaders on policy priorities—the Equality Act especially.
Collins’ office did not respond to requests for comment about the future of the Equality Act or her feelings towards erstwhile ally HRC, but those close to Collins said that HRC’s involvement in any kind of vote-wrangling on the Hill would be poorly received by the senator. Regardless, HRC told The Daily Beast that it still plans to help shepherd the legislation to the finish line.
“The Equality Act is HRC’s top legislative priority,” a spokesperson for the organization said, “and we will work tirelessly to ensure the bill is signed by President Biden.”
But Reynolds said that HRC’s “bad bargain” will come back to haunt the group the next time they need Collins’ vote, which is now more critical than ever.
“They bought into the notion that the solution was control of the Senate, not supporting individual senators who had been right on their issues,” he said of groups like HRC. “People ask me, is she gonna take it out on people? These groups that abandoned her? No, she’s not gonna take it out on them… They've lost their influence, and it’s gonna be a long time coming back.”