Susan Collins: A modern day GOP moderate

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President Obama won Maine handily in 2008 and 2012. But even at the height of his popularity, one politician outperformed him in the state: GOP Senator Susan Collins.

The 444,300 votes Collins received in the small, rural New England state earned the Republican more than 61 percent of the vote on the same night Maine voted overwhelmingly to send Obama to the White House. In these polarized times, that’s an incredible feat, especially when running against a competent challenger like Collins’ 2008 opponent, Congressman Tom Allen.

Six years after her historic reelection to a third term, Susan Collins – who once pledged to serve only two terms to the Senate if elected at all – has decided to ask Maine’s voters for a fourth. In some important ways, not much has changed since she became the top vote-getter in the state’s history.

Senator Susan Collins (Wikipedia)
Senator Susan Collins (Wikipedia)

She’s considered invulnerable in the Beltway. Her campaign is flushed with cash, currently sitting on more than $4 million in a state with inexpensive media markets. Most importantly, she has — for now—– retained an aura of bipartisanship and moderation that Maine’s famously independent-minded voters appreciate.

It’s an image Collins works hard to cultivate, which may explain why she’s only the 45th most conservative member of the Senate, according to the National Journal’s rankings of all 45 GOP senators. But in today’s Republican Party, where the scent of compromise has toppled household names in the Senate thanks to Tea Party backlash, what does it mean to be the most moderate Republican left standing?

The Undercover Senator

She’ll never stand in front of the cameras and threaten a government shutdown. She’ll never indulge in partisan taunts on the Senate floor, or embarrass herself with an inflammatory remark on a hot-button topic, as have so many of her colleagues.

But in substance if not style, Senator Collins has increasingly voted in lockstep with a GOP that’s been yanked hard to the right in the last decade. Her reputation as a moderate depends heavily on comparisons with the firebrands at her side.

Susan Collins did vote for Obama’s two nominees for the Supreme Court, whose confirmations were assured well before her vote was cast. In the first days of the Obama administration, she became the third Republican senator to vote for the stimulus package, when it was clear that the measure had the votes to pass with or without her.

But in the two most critical votes in recent years, Susan Collins was there when Mitch McConnell needed her. After flirting with compromise for the entire summer of 2009, she eventually joined McConnell’s “hard no” line against health care reform.

And in February 2010, all eyes in the Senate were on her as proponents of campaign finance reform scrambled to find votes for a bill to push back against the Supreme Court’s verdict in Citizens United, which had opened the door to unlimited corporate spending in elections. Collins sided with McConnell’s filibuster. The bill was defeated when it received just 59 votes, one shy of the 60-vote threshold to overcome the filibuster and bring the vote to the floor.

Susan Collins could have been the crucial 60th vote for campaign finance reform. Instead, see stood aside – and the 2010 and 2012 elections saw an explosion of corporate spending, as shadowy SuperPACs launched attack ads that had been paid for by mystery donors.

Campaign finance reform polls well in Maine, as it generally does throughout the country. But in helping to unleash the flood of corporate spending to give America’s most powerful an even bigger say in government, Susan Collins sided with Mitch McConnell over popular sentiment in Maine.

It’s not the only issue in which Collins has discreetly defied the public mood. Last April, she voted against a bill to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. Her vote went towards defeating a bill that would have helped more than 95,000 people in Maine.

Her usual explanations for voting against popular measures were offered. She supported a higher minimum wage in principle, but not one that was that high. She hadn’t been able to amend the bill. It wasn’t bipartisan. She had concerns that weren’t addressed, etc.

At the end of the day, what can’t be disputed is this: Susan Collins had the chance to boost the living standards of tens of thousands of families in Maine with the push of a button on the Senate floor. She declined to do that, and 95,000 Mainers will live with the consequences.

And her Democratic opponent isn’t letting Maine’s voters forget this.

Shenna Bellows: An Underdog Who Comes Out Swinging

“We’re certainly hitting hard on the minimum wage because so many Mainers would have benefited,” said Shenna Bellows, Democratic nominee for Senate in Maine. “Keeping the minimum wage so artificially low is cruel, nonsensical, and damages our economy.”

Democratic Senate candidate Shenna Bellows (campaign courtesy)
Democratic Senate candidate Shenna Bellows (campaign courtesy)

But that’s not the only issue Bellows will be pressing until November as she seeks to puncture what she and her supporters see as an illusion of moderation.

“Every voter in Maine should be concerned about the direction of the U.S. Supreme Court,” Bellows told me, citing Collins’ votes to confirm Justices Alito and Roberts to the Court. The judicial assault on women’s rights, voting rights, and campaign finance reform laws can be traced back to those fateful votes for their confirmation, she points out.

And she’s also strongly advocating positions that aren’t necessarily on the forefront of voters’ minds. Having served as Executive Director for the American Civil Liberties Union for eight years, Bellows has distinguished herself as an opponent of out-of-bounds NSA surveillance and warrantless wiretapping enabled by the PATRIOT Act.

“I’ll work with both Democrats and Republicans to restore our constitutional freedom,” she says. “I’m excited for the chance to work with Republicans like Rand Paul, Democrats like Jeff Merkley,” she says, citing two senators who have worked to rein in the new era of nonstop surveillance.

Shenna Bellows has already taken part in something of a tradition in Maine politics, taking a 350-mile trek across the state to visit schools, small businesses, and often-ignored communities in her bid to win Mainers’ trust this November. She’s won the endorsement and backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which can only mean that the national party senses Collins could be vulnerable – especially after the little-known challenger managed to out-raise the long-time incumbent earlier this year.

She’s also shown herself to be a standout supporter of marriage equality. There are politicians who are ahead of the curve when it comes to this issue… and then there are candidates like Bellows, who supported marriage equality years ago, when the concept was still unpopular in Maine, and held true to her promise not to marry her now-husband until all Mainers could marry the person they loved.

It’s the kind of statement that in her supporters’ eyes proves her sincerity on issues she campaigns on, and has helped her earn the support of national progressive organizations.

In addition, Bellows is benefiting from a little-known phenomenon in Maine politics this cycle. Some of Susan Collins’ supporters from previous election cycles have turned away from her to support Bellows.

“I like Susan Collins,” a former supporter, identified as “Lillian,” says in an ad. “I even volunteered for her. But Susan Collins has been voting with Washington Republicans on issues that matter to me. Collins voted with Republicans to block the minimum wage increase, and against equal pay.”

Kandie Desell is another disillusioned former supporter of Collins. She voted for the senator in all three of her last elections, but now believes she has lost touch with Maine.

“I like Susan Collins,” Desell says, echoing a sentiment held by many Mainers who nonetheless plan to pull the lever for Bellows. “I think she actually does care about the people in Maine, but she’s spent so much time in Washington she’s forgotten what people here care about.” She cites a long list of votes Collins has gotten wrong, including votes against expanding veterans’ health care and the raising of the minimum wage.

“In Maine, we have so many people going hungry – some of them working multiple jobs around the clock,” she says. “$10.10 an hour may not be quite enough to make a living wage, but at least it’s a start… refusing these things shows she’s lost touch with how bad things are in Maine.”

Despite being a co-leader of the Maine Association of Interdependent Neighborhoods who is highly active politically, Desell never volunteered for Collins – but she has for Shenna Bellows. She describes the challenger as a fresh face who brings a new spirit to the election.

Doubling Down for Maine’s Governor

Despite recent votes, Collins has cultivated a moderate image, and retains goodwill Maine. But the same cannot be said about Maine’s Tea Party governor, Paul LePage. Brash, terminally confrontational, and seeming to relish every outrage he stirs up, Maine’s governor has lived up to the spirit of the statement he made to a group of fishermen in 2011.

“As your Governor,” he told them, “you’re going to be seeing a lot of me on the front page, saying, ‘Governor LePage tells Obama to go to hell.”

Governor Paul LePage (Wikipedia)
Governor Paul LePage (Wikipedia)

“Tell them to kiss my butt,” he said in 2011 when asked about a statement from the NAACP criticizing his decision not to attend ceremonies on Martin Luther King Day.

“The Holocaust was a horrific crime, and frankly I would never want to see that repeated. Maybe the IRS is not quite as bad – yet,” he said in 2012. The outcry over the comparison was so strong it was a rare instance where LePage apologized.

“You guys, you’re idiots, and you’re just as bad if not worse than those other guys,” he said in 2013 before storming out of a meeting with three independent lawmakers in 2013. Just a few months later, he lamented the fact he had a legislature unable to work with him.

The embarrassment Mainers feel for their Governor is reflected in LePage’s terrible ratings, which still might be just strong enough to win reelection if independent candidate Eliot Cutler succeeds in dividing the anti-LePage vote this November. In a three-person race, it’s unclear what will happen.

What’s even more inexplicable is why, with three candidates in the race, Susan Collins has chosen to lend her support to a politician as far-right and incendiary as LePage. Senator Collins depends on the perception she is different from national Republicans to win in Democratic-leaning Maine, yet she attended a fundraiser for LePage in 2013 and happily shares the stage with him at rallies.

Ben Grant, the Chairman of Maine’s Democratic Party, said in a statement that Collins’ vocal support and financial backing of LePage was “a clear sign of support for the Party’s extreme shift to the right.”

That’s as good an explanation as any for Collins’ backing of LePage. It’s puzzling why a politician up for reelection who is bound to take a hit from any close association with the man would decide to back him openly and wholeheartedly.

She either genuinely believes in LePage and his leadership, or she’s “taking one for the team” to help her party’s embattled governor.

Either of those possibilities makes Collins’ moderate image – and the campaign that’s depending on it – that much harder to pull off in November.