Collins’ choices in the age of Trump have left her vulnerable this election year

What happened to the political standing of Sen. Susan Collins happened fast. Since Donald Trump became president, Collins’ job approval rating has plummeted in Maine and political analysts rate her re-election race a toss-up.

When an incumbent hasn’t had a scandal but loses support so quickly, some might see that politician as a victim of circumstances. But that overlooks the decisions made by the elected official. After all, as the poet Robert Frost reminds us, when two roads diverge, each person chooses which one to take and that makes “all the difference.”

And Collins has had to make so many choices in recent years as the Republican party has changed. The Main Street, civil, reasonable Republicanism Collins personified still exists in some places but far less so.

Sen. Susan Collins speaks during a hearing to examine caring for seniors amid the COVID-19 crisis on Capitol Hill on May 21 in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Increasingly her party is defined by several elements. One is the ethnonationalism of right-wing populism. The other emphasizes serving plutocracy, delivering tax cuts for the very wealthy while undermining the power of workers and letting corporations bespoil our lands and waters. President Trump pursued both aspects, aided by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell also pushed through supportive federal judges, and even held open a Supreme Court seat after Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016 and then helped Trump fill it in 2017.

Another aspect of contemporary Republicanism is loyalty to Trump. This is a man who lies incessantly, ignores science, and uses crude slurs. Trump calls the free press “the enemy of the people.” Without evidence, he claimed the 2016 election was filled with fraud. He promotes misinformation and hypes conspiracy theories

Trump does not brook disagreement or criticism. And Republicans’ views of the presidency went from what its 2016 platform described as “a president who will respect the Constitution’s separation of powers” to Attorney General William Barr’s vision of a president so powerful that there is no “limit on the President’s authority to act on matters which concern him or his own conduct.” 

What has been Sen. Collins’ response?

When Trump was running for president in 2016, Collins pointedly proclaimed she would not vote for him. This year Collins won’t even say if she voted for Trump in an uncontested primary and ducks saying if she’ll back Trump versus Democrat Joe Biden.

At the conclusion of Trump’s impeachment trial, Collins stated “it was wrong for President Trump to mention former Vice President Biden on that phone call, and it was wrong for him to ask a foreign country to investigate a political rival” but she voted to acquit Trump on the charge about that behavior.

Collins also said Trump “learned” from impeachment, that it was “a pretty big lesson.” When asked about this, Trump disagreed..

Meanwhile Trump has continued to abuse power. After he fired a number of inspectors general, Collins voiced her objection but hasn’t backed a proposal by Montana Sen. Jon Tester that would use Congress’s power over federal funding to thwart Trump’s assault on government watchdogs. As Tester noted, Congress could stop it “if the Republicans would step up.”

Ads promote Collins’ score on a bipartisan index that is based on cosponsoring bills, some of which never had a vote or even a committee hearing. However, according to ProPublica, Collins voted with McConnell 90% of the time in the first two years of the Trump administration, up from 73% in 2015-2016 and 59% in 2013-2014. Her record lost her endorsements from pro-choice groups and the League of Conservation Voters.

Collins could have taken a different path — one more like her once-boss Bill Cohen, who stood up to two presidents from his own party, Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, and Ronald Reagan in investigating the Iran-contra affair.

Clearly separating from Trump now would look politically expedient. If Collins had done so earlier in Trump’s presidency, she would have been lauded as courageous and independent.

Incumbents have many advantages and the previously very popular Collins could win re-election. But that is less likely than it might have been had not Collins gotten herself trapped by Trumpism.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.