LAST FALL, Erik Mercer, a Maine social worker and psychotherapist, saw one of his senators, the Republican Susan Collins, while he was waiting for a plane in Washington, D.C. Mercer, a Democrat, had approached Collins on a plane once before, after the 2016 election, to thank her for a ferociously worded op-ed she had published before the election calling Donald Trump “unworthy of being our president” and declaring that she would not be voting for him.
This time, he asked if he could sit next to her and then described the trouble he was having explaining to his children that the president was above the law, mentioning particularly the terrible things Trump says about women. Collins, he recalled, replied that she didn’t believe the president had said anything bad about women for a while and that she couldn’t comment further because she was a potential juror in his Senate trial. The conversation was frustrating, and he called a friend immediately afterward to complain about what he perceived as Collins’s lack of courage.
Mercer soon found himself just behind Collins on the jet bridge and overheard her tell another passenger that a constituent had just been “very rude” to her. Mercer cut in: “You were the one who refused to answer my questions. I was trying to do the work of democracy, and you refused to participate.”
“He called me a coward,” Collins said to her companion.
When he got back to Maine, Mercer took out a full-page ad in the Portland Press Herald recounting their interaction. Soon, Collins’s spokesperson Annie Clark was telling Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz that Mercer had been “aggressive, confrontational, and sanctimonious.” Those exact words later appeared in a letter to the editor sent by political consultant Larry McCarthy, best known as the mastermind behind George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad in 1988, who had been with Collins on the flight.
In the span of Trump’s administration, Collins has gone from being broadly beloved, understood as one of the more humane and thoughtful Republicans in her party, to finding herself in brawls like this, widely reviled, regarded by Democrats as a loyal foot soldier to her ever-more-extreme right-wing cohort and party leader and yet by some members of that cohort as an unreliable waffler.
In 2015, polling firm Morning Consult found Collins to have, at 78 percent, the highest approval ratings of any Republican senator, second only to Bernie Sanders in the whole body. But this January, the same survey found her approval at 42 percent and her disapproval at 52; she is now the most unpopular American senator, beating out even her caucus leader, Mitch McConnell.
And that survey was taken before Collins’s ineffectual vote to call witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial, and then her vote to acquit him, choices likely to have endeared her to no one and that set her up in contrast to Utah senator Mitt Romney, who, in voting to convict the president and leader of his own party and giving a moving speech laying out his reasons for doing so, embodied the kind of politician Collins had long promised voters she was.
To many, even those most critical of her, Collins appears caught in a miserable position: the only remaining Republican senator in New England, torn between an unrelentingly disciplined caucus, Trump’s punitive base, and a liberalish Maine constituency, all during a period of enormously high stakes. But it’s not like Collins wound up in this bind by tragic happenstance.
In December, the 67-year-old senator—who, when she first ran for the Senate in 1996 vowed to serve only two terms, declaring, “Twelve years … long enough to be in public service”—announced officially that she would be seeking a fifth term in 2020.
Collins has always advertised herself as above partisan clannishness. “I want to continue the independent, moderate, and thoughtful tradition of Bill Cohen,” Collins said, during her first Senate race, in reference to the Republican senator whose seat she was running to fill. Collins had worked for Cohen, first as an undergraduate congressional intern during the year he famously broke with his party and voted to impeach Richard Nixon, then as a legislative aide for more than 12 years.
In ’96, Collins was sharply critical of Joe Brennan, her opponent for Cohen’s seat, noting that he “voted a straight party line”—with Democrats—“93 percent of the time” and arguing “I don’t think either party has all the answers, and I think we need someone who is going to take an independent approach.”
For many of the 23 years she’s since spent in the Senate, Collins did maintain a voting record more independent than your average bear’s. According to CQ Roll Call, she voted with Democratic presidents between 49 (Clinton in 1999) and 85 (Obama in 2009) percent of the time and with Republican presidents between 59 (Bush in 2008) and 88 (Bush in 2001 and 2002) percent of the time.
But according to the same publication, in 2017 and 2018, during the period of the Trump administration when Republicans had a narrow majority in the Senate and every vote counted, Collins voted with Trump 94 percent of the time. Since the Republican majority has grown, she’s gone back to casting some (largely decorative) votes in opposition, some of which work mostly to alienate her from hardcore Trump voters and look to liberals like little more than a fig leaf.
In short, Collins has gone from pleasing an unusually high number of people, at least some of the time, to pleasing vanishingly few people almost never.
Her choice to run again, against a backdrop of impeachment, ever-more partisan politics, and her own insistence that she is still the reasonable, freethinking politician she has always claimed to be, prompts questions about what has changed: Is it Susan Collins herself? Her party? Or is it simply that the Trump era has revealed something about Collins, that the moderation on which she built her Senate career was never quite as defining as she made it out to be?
TRYING TO GET COLLINS’S ATTENTION has become something of a weekend sport for some Mainers. Protesters regularly post videos of themselves staging sit-ins and vigils at her Maine offices. The bird-dog her flights in and out of the state and trail her to announced radio appearances and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, sometimes standing silent with signs, sometimes lobbing questions at her on the street. In early January, progressive organizations bought giant movable billboards urging eight Senate Republicans, Collins chief among them, to hold Trump accountable during impeachment. One of those billboards wound up in front of the Bangor home of Stephen King, a longtime critic of Collins, who lives on the same street as she does.
Dan Aibel, a New York playwright who for 13 years has maintained the CollinsWatch blog and now Twitter handle—dedicated to tracking the actions and coverage of Maine’s senior senator—tells me that for years, people wondered about his quixotic interest, but no longer. “It used to be this weird, curious thing,” he said. “ ‘Why are you so focused on Susan Collins?’ And now the very same people say, ‘Oh my God, tell me what’s going on with Susan Collins.’
Multiple organizations that had previously endorsed or supported Collins have turned on her for the first time: natural. The League of Conservation Voters. Planned Parenthood, which gave the officially pro-choice Republican an award as recently as 2017, January endorsed her leading Democratic opponent, Sara Gideon. In the final quarter of 2019, Gideon, the Speaker of the Maine House who has not even won the primary yet (she is running in a big field that includes Betsy Sweet, Bre Kidman, Tiffany Bond, and Ross LaJeunesse), raised $3.5 million—$1.2 million more than Collins. The race is expected to ultimately draw close to $50 million, the most expensive in the history of Maine.
Collins’s neutered vote for witnesses in the impeachment trial— which came only after it was clear there weren’t enough Republican votes to risk any actual witnesses being called—didn’t seem to enrage the most powerful Republicans. One White House official told me, on the day that she cast it, that no one in the administration “is surprised or angry,” and space, which sent Romney a huffy Disinvitation from its annual conference even before he voted to convict Trump, made no such affronted gesture toward Collins.
But her efforts to present as a solemn defender of procedural norms—she said that witnesses would permit both sides to “fully and fairly make their case”—didn’t endear her to the Trump-loving masses, who online call her a RINO (“Republican in name only”) and imagine a hero who will arrive to primary her from the right, which remains a possibility until the state filing deadline of March 16. On Fox News, conservative radio host Howie Carr suggested that her witness vote made her “the most endangered” Republican senator up for reelection. Collins’s longtime friend and former Republican state senator Roger Katz told me that not too long ago, Collins’s pace “sent a check to one of the county Republican committees to assist them in getting their local candidates elected. But the county Republican committee is so upset with her that they sent her check back.”
MAINE IS AN EXTREMELY rural state, its 1.3 million residents spread among 495 towns. “Susan Collins has been to every single one of those 495 towns,” said Ben Gilman, who has been in Maine politics since the 1990s and now works for the state’s Chamber of Commerce. “I always thought that she embodies Maine’s spirit: independent with a fiscally conservative, socially liberal model.”
Indeed, with the exception of its bombastic, hard-right, two-term 74th governor, Paul LePage, who served until 2019 and liked to describe himself as a precursor of Donald Trump, Maine has a lengthy history of political independence. Forty percent of voters are not registered either as Democrats or Republicans, and almost to a number, Maine natives I talked to stressed that if they were affiliated with a party, they rarely voted a straight ticket. To wit: In 2008, Obama won Maine by 17 points, while Collins won reelection by 23 points.
In addition to Bill Cohen, other state leaders, including Democratic senators Ed Muskie and George Mitchell and former Republican governor John “Jock” McKernan, were regarded as moderates, well-liked both inside and outside their parties. Their forerunner was Margaret Chase Smith, who was elected to her husband’s congressional seat after his death and then to the Senate in 1948, becoming the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. Smith was a Republican hawk who supported the Vietnam War and pushed to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. But she also famously broke with her party to stand up to Joe McCarthy and his anti-communist crusade and voted against judicial and Cabinet appointments made by Republican presidents. Collins has often cited Smith as her role model and told of how she first met her on a high-school trip to Washington: “What I remember most was her telling me always to stand tall for what I believed.”
Maine, like Texas, California, and other frontier states, has a comparatively rich history of women in politics, richer in many ways than traditionally blue states like Massachusetts and New York. Olympia Snowe, another in Maine’s tradition of moderate Republicans, was elected to the Senate in 1994, two years before Collins filled the other seat, making Maine the second state to field an all-female delegation. (Snowe and Collins had a famously frosty relationship: Joe Lieberman, a friend of Collins’s, once joked with a Washington Post reporter writing a dual profile about the pair that it should be spelled “d-u-e-l.”) So many women have been in Maine politics for so long that the state has become home to multiple matriarchal political dynasties, including the Collinses’. Her mother, Patricia, was the mayor of her hometown.
COLLINS IS FROM CARIBOU, a town of just about 8,000 in Aroostook County, Maine’s northernmost region. Aroostook, where my mother grew up on a potato farm about 60 miles south of Collins’s hometown, is rural, wooded, wild, and remote; once you get to Bangor, you keep driving more than an hour to enter it from the south.
It’s also conservative; Maine’s liberal populations are clustered near Portland and on the coast, while everything north and west in the state is pretty red. When Collins was growing up, the County—as Aroostook is called in Maine—had a robust farming economy that has slowed, as well as military bases and a college that has since closed.
Collins’s family has run a lumber and hardware business based in Caribou for five generations, and it wasn’t just her mother who was mayor; her father, Donald, was too before he served five terms as a Republican in the state legislature. (Collins’s uncle was on the Maine Supreme Court and in the state senate.) At her father’s funeral in 2018, Katz told me, he noticed that Collins, one of six siblings, did not give a eulogy. “It was clear to me that she didn’t want it to be about the passing of a U.S. senator’s father; she wanted it to be about the passing of her father.”
Collins’s mother is a particular influence on her daughter. As Katz said, “Susan was known as Patricia’s daughter before Patricia was known as Susan’s mother.” And Richard Guarasci, who was Collins’s progressive-leaning government professor at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, recalled that Collins once returned from a Thanksgiving break and told him, “I had to tell my parents I was in your class about 20th-century Marxism; it didn’t go over well.”
One former Collins Senate staffer said that in her early days in the Senate, Collins’s parents’ sense of how she was doing in Washington was a consideration at the office. “The senator heard about it if her mom was unhappy.” Several people mentioned Collins’s outsize sensitivity to her parents’ perception of her work and life, one noting that what Patricia thought weighed heavily on Collins even into her 40s and 50s.
After her brush with Marxism in college, Collins returned to working in Cohen’s congressional office, a job she was hired for by Cohen’s chief of staff, Tom Daffron, a respected Maine political operative who would become Collins’s mentor, close friend, and— nearly 40 years after they met—husband; the couple wed in 2012 when Collins was 59 and Daffron 73.
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