If Sen. Susan Collins runs for a fifth term, she ought to expect a very different race than in the past. Forget coasting to victory, no matter the opponent or even the nature of the election cycle.
Collins will start off as vulnerable — a top Democratic target in a state carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The Maine Republican’s great strength over the years has been her moderation and thoughtfulness. She mulls over issues extensively, almost always looking for middle ground.
She supports abortion rights and LGBT issues, and she has broken with her party on topics ranging from the environment to taxes to the Affordable Care Act.
But Collins’ vote to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court gives Democrats an opportunity to retire her next year — as does the fact that her contest could determine which party controls the Senate.
A remarkable politician
Collins has had an extensive career of public service. She has also proven to be a savvy campaigner and able vote-getter, and she fits the mold of moderate Maine Republicans like former Sen. William Cohen, former Gov. John McKernan, former Sen. Olympia Snowe and, of course, the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith.
Collins served as a congressional staffer (for Cohen), as commissioner of the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation (in McKernan’s cabinet), as regional director of the Small Business Administration, and as the deputy state treasurer of Massachusetts before making an unsuccessful run for governor in 1994. (Independent Angus King won that race, and Collins finished a somewhat distant third, behind former Democratic Rep. Joseph Brennan, who had served two terms as governor previously. Her showing did not suggest she had much of a political future.)
Two years after that gubernatorial loss, Collins ran for Cohen’s open seat. In the fall, she defeated Brennan by just over five points, 49.2 percent to 43.9 percent.
Collins’ showing was noteworthy since President Bill Clinton was carrying Maine comfortably at the same time.
Six years later, in 2002, Collins faced a serious challenger in former Maine Senate Majority Leader Chellie Pingree, now a congresswoman. But the year was a good one for incumbents, and Collins won re-election comfortably, 58 percent to 42 percent.
In 2008, Collins was challenged by 1st District Democratic Rep. Tom Allen, who on paper certainly looked like a serious threat. Elected to Congress six times, he represented half the state in the House.
With an unpopular outgoing Republican president in George W. Bush and a dynamic Democratic presidential nominee in Barack Obama, Collins clearly was swimming against a strong current.
Republican presidential nominee John McCain drew only 40 percent of the vote in Maine, winning just one of the state’s 16 counties.
Nationally, the GOP lost 21 House seats. But even in that inhospitable political environment, Collins clobbered Allen 61.3 percent to 38.6 percent – winning every county in the state.
Six years later, in Obama’s second midterm election, Collins cruised to re-election with over 68 percent of the vote against a weak Democratic challenger, Shenna Bellows.
In politics, as well as investing, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” That is particularly true of Collins next year, since her support of Kavanaugh will likely generate a well-funded Democratic challenger.
Democrats will surely argue that Kavanaugh’s confirmation puts abortion rights and LGBT equality at risk, and they will note that re-electing Collins all but guarantees continued Republican control the Senate, which will translate into more conservative judges and more power for the GOP’s right wing.
That argument, if successful, would make the Maine Senate race less about Collins and her service to the state and more about President Donald Trump and continued Republican control of the Senate.
That narrative would not be ideal for Collins, since Democrats now control the state’s governorship and both chambers of the Maine Legislature.
But unlike 1994, 2006, 2010 or even 2018, when midterm voters sent messages of dissatisfaction about the sitting president’s performance, 2020 is a presidential year.
Voters will have separate votes to cast for president and the Senate, which means that Maine voters can send separate messages about Trump and Collins, if they prefer.
Still, with American politics becoming more partisan and ticket-splitting less common, Collins will need to convince Maine voters that she is the same independent voice that many Mainers thought she was.
And she has ammunition to make her case, including her vote to save the Affordable Care Act and her Washington Post op-ed explaining why she could not vote for Trump for president.
A handful of interesting Democratic names are being floated as possible challengers to Collins, including former national security adviser Susan Rice, 1st District Rep. Pingree, former Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree (Chellie’s daughter) and current Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon.
Rice has not stopped speculation that she may be interested, but her lack of deep roots in the state would seem to be a serious liability in Maine.
The bottom line
Collins was underestimated politically for years, some of it because of a halting public speaking style. But her Kavanaugh vote — and her explanation shortly before she cast it — undermined a political brand that she has built over the years.
The question is how damaged she is, as well as who will carry the Democratic banner against her.
So, while it is too early to know whether she can win another term, one thing is certain: Susan Collins has a problem.
Note: This column initially appeared in Roll Call on January 15, 2019.