Republican Senator Susan Collins got a boost in the polls when she took credit for helping write the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses. But now she’s back in the doldrums, her job approval at 37 percent, as she faces increasingly steep odds to win re-election.
Big corporate chains scarfed up the taxpayer money before most of the small businesses in Collins’ home state of Maine had a chance to access the funds. Some of the free-riders were shamed into returning the money, like the LA Lakers, who don’t exactly need tiding over.
Collins called Democrats “disgraceful” when they held up the CARES stimulus package to win concessions that included oversight of a special “slush fund” for corporations. Now she’s on the hot seat for supporting a no-strings-attached bailout and crafting a rescue plan for small business that turns out to be a cash cow for big business.
It’s a familiar pattern for Collins burnishing her brand as a moderate while bowing to Mitch McConnell, the Senate leader, and President Trump. The cross pressures are intensified by her bid for a fifth term in a seat that could determine which party holds the Senate next year, and by a pandemic that has exposed the chasm between what Collins says she stands for and how her actions play out.
The Maine Small Business Forum collected almost 300 names in 48 hours on a letter to the state’s four Washington representatives (two senators, two House members) on how to fix the problems of access to the government program. Three responded, says Andrew Volk of the Portland Hunt and Alpine Club—all but Collins. Volk described himself as “less than happy with the Washington representative who tried to take credit for the PPP program—she helped author it—but has not been responsive.”
“You don’t know if she has any plans to fix this, but she sure doesn’t seem to be listening to these business people,” says Willy Ritch, executive director of 16 Counties, a Maine-based nonprofit that focuses on holding public officials accountable. “What is so frustrating as a Mainer, we want to see who’s getting the money,” Ritch told the Daily Beast, citing a shoe store chain founded in Maine in 1914 that has 90 employees in six stores and hasn’t gotten help. Yet a real estate holding company whose CEO is a major Republican donor got almost $60 million for Ritz Carlton hotels, including one in the Virgin Islands where rooms go for $1,000 a night.
Senator Collins’ office reports that nearly 17,000 small businesses in Maine have been approved for $2.24 billion of forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, which she co-authored. The average loan amount is $134,000, says Collins communications director Annie Clark. “With a program this big, there were bound to be some problems that arise in its rollout,” Clark said in an email, adding that the program is not meant for large, publicly traded corporations that have access to capital markets, and that each applicant seeking a forgivable loan must sign a “good faith” certification.
Falsifying that certification “carries the risk of serious criminal penalties” and those who can’t meet the standard should return the money by May 7, according to the most recent guidance from Treasury, which Collins “strongly supports.”
There are glitches in any massive government program even when well-intentioned. Think healthcare.gov. But the economic inequities laid bare by the pandemic make the tilt toward corporate America all the more galling. Like the GOP’s tax cut, which favored high earners, 4 percent of the companies in the PPP program have taken up 45 percent of the money, says Ritch, and the big banks have collected $10 billion in fees.
“Susan Collins is in real trouble,” says Jessica Taylor with the non-partisan Cook Political Report. “When you have mom and pop stores that can’t get funding but Ruth’s Chris Steak House and the LA Lakers did, it’s not a good look.”
Collins only raised $2.4 million in the first quarter of this year, while her likely challenger, Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, raised $7.1 million in the same period.
Maine’s primary is now July 14, moved from early June because of the pandemic. A crowd-funding campaign launched after Collins voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is waiting in the wings with $4 million to support Gideon once she is the Democratic nominee.
Some voters in Maine say Collins has changed; others say it’s the times that have changed, and Collins is out of step. Whichever it is, the coalition that powered her through four Senate victories with independent-minded New Englanders—women drawn to her pro-choice stand in an increasingly anti-choice party, together with loyal Republicans—is fraying if not fractured.
“She has cultivated this unique base in Maine, but it’s not clear they will stick with her,” says Taylor.
To many women, her support for Kavanaugh delivered in a lengthy Senate floor speech put the fifth and deciding vote on the Supreme Court to further curb reproductive rights and potentially overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. Her backing of President Trump throughout the Senate impeachment proceedings took its toll and was compounded when she insisted after his acquittal that he had learned his lesson. He promptly demonstrated that he had not.
The question now is whether she has learned her lesson. Her loyalty to her party and to the president who leads it come at a price too. And that price may be her seat.