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.
During a brief period when I was working for the political unit of CBS News around the 2006 midterm elections, I attended a pre-election meeting run by Sean McManus and Paul Friedman. McManus was then president of CBS News, while Friedman was vice president.
I remember McManus, who made his mark running CBS Sports, saying he had bumped into a friend or acquaintance who told him the alleged Democratic midterm wave had crested and Republican prospects were rebounding.
Having just had conservations with campaign pollsters, party strategists and political consultants, I knew there was little or no evidence of a dramatic change in the trajectory of the election, and I said so in response to McManus’ anecdote. The midterm wave, including a Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress, was still intact, I observed. (Democrats won control of both chambers that year.)
I recall that my comment didn’t seem to please McManus, but the meeting quickly moved on to other matters. McManus almost certainly had no idea who I was. He never said a word to me.
I relate this memory as a warning about the final month before a national election.
The tendency to draw dramatic conclusions from fragments of data, whispers of alleged movement in polling or supposed anecdotes from a particular campaign is almost uncontrollable in the final few weeks before an election. Both experts and the casually involved are looking for any sign that things are changing, since change is bigger news than continuity.
In some respects, this “last month effect” now happens every day for two years during each election cycle. There are more polls, more airtime to fill on cable TV, and more political and election coverage in general than there ever has been, which has produced more chatter, more speculation and more amateurish analysis.
I’ve warned repeatedly about jumping to conclusions from the latest public poll — my Feb. 12 column “The Generic Is Falling! The Generic Is Falling!” correctly rebutted the widespread assessment that the 2018 midterm’s trajectory was changing — and I am doing so again.
Over the last week, we have seen a seemingly endless flood of stories about new Republican enthusiasm and how that could affect both turnout and election outcomes next month.
“Democrats’ advantage in recent polls may not bring the ‘blue wave’ they’re hoping for,” warned a piece on CNBC.com from an economics reporter, and plenty of talking heads and reporters warned the Kavanaugh Supreme Court fight was energizing Republicans and undercutting the Democratic midterm surge. Take all such assessments with a grain of salt.
My point is not that any single poll, article or talking head is wrong. It is simply a reminder that Republicans (and their media allies over at Fox News) have an interest in arguing that Kavanaugh has changed the midterm dynamics no matter whether or not it has. And even the major mainstream electronic and print media have an incentive to raise questions about a so-called Republican surge.
President Trump certainly is trying to use wedge issues to energize his supporters, and there may well be an uptick in GOP enthusiasm after the recent Supreme Court fight. But based on the past, I’m skeptical the Kavanaugh fight will fundamentally change next month’s outcomes.
Republicans won the Kavanaugh fight, and they now have complete control of the federal government. Traditionally, anger, frustration, disappointment and fear are stronger motivators than satisfaction, relief and euphoria. Democrats and liberals simply are more desperate than are conservatives and Republicans, which is one reason I doubt GOP turnout will match Democratic turnout.
But there are other reasons why the Democratic grassroots advantage should appear on Election Day.
First, while Trump turned out his voters two years ago, allowing him to fashion a narrow win while losing the popular vote, Hillary Clinton lost some Democrats and liberals who saw her as equally flawed. Those Democrats voted for the Green nominee or didn’t vote at all, but they are now likely to turn out to vote against Trump and the GOP next month.
Second, Trump and his party have alienated the single most important swing group: college-educated whites in the suburbs. Many of those voters backed Trump because of their general partisan bent, their hope that Trump would bring about change or their dislike of Clinton. But those voters now dislike Trump and are likely going to vote for Democratic candidates in the fall.
Third, in addition to differences in base turnout, electoral waves can be produced by dramatic swings among independent voters. Those voters could well be crucial in 2018, as I noted in my May 30 column “Why You Should Focus on Independents.” So far, most polls show independent voters swinging strongly to the Democrats.
Finally, polls taken during the Kavanaugh fight probably don’t reflect what the political situation will be like in November. Veteran pollsters always warn that surveys are mere snapshots of public opinion, and dramatic events often produce misleading poll data.
It’s certainly possible that events over the last two weeks have had — or over the next four weeks will have — an impact on voter enthusiasm and turnout. But rather than relying on Rasmussen and Investor’s Business Daily generic ballot polling, I’d wait to see what the NBC News/Wall Street Journal, New York Times/CBS, Washington Post/ABC, Pew, Gallup and CNN polls show.
Right now, the House still looks poised to flip party control, while the Senate does not. That’s the way things have looked for months.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 9, 2018.
Assuming the FBI investigation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh doesn’t uncover some startling new information, the Senate is likely to confirm him to the Supreme Court and the political effects on the midterms could go in two different directions.
Democratic lawmakers will complain, of course, that the inquiry wasn’t thorough enough, that Kavanaugh lacks a judicial temperament, that he is too partisan to sit on the land’s highest court, and that he wasn’t completely honest with the Senate Judiciary Committee about his drinking.
Still, if all 51 Republican senators are looking for a way to confirm Kavanaugh, Democrats are powerless to derail the nomination.
The impact on the fight for the House is likely to be minimal.
There probably will be about a month between Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Nov. 6, which should give many voters an opportunity to refocus on other issues, be they health care, immigration or President Donald Trump’s performance.
Of course, in states with early/absentee/mail voting, the confirmation fight will still be on some people’s minds. But the Kavanaugh fight has not redrawn the electoral battle lines during the final six weeks of the election.
Democrats were already energized when Kavanaugh was nominated, and Trump’s strongest supporters have remained loyal to him no matter what he says or does.
Republican primary turnout was good, though it didn’t match — and isn’t likely to match — Democratic turnout or enthusiasm.
Recently, some pollsters have argued that heightened Republican enthusiasm could eat into the Democrats’ expected turnout advantage in November. But if and when Kavanaugh is confirmed, that event will give the GOP “control” of the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, and that will remove some of the urgency about the midterms for Republican voters.
Democrats, on the other hand, will see the midterms as their only opportunity to check Trump and his party. During the month between Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Election Day, the president is likely to return to his combative mode.
He will interject himself back into every House race, as he has been for months, thereby reminding voters that the midterms are about him.
The 2018 election’s crucial swing group — college-educated whites/white women — will be at least as energized after the Kavanaugh fight as they were before his nomination.
Polls have shown for months that swing voters (particularly women) have been preparing to send a loud message to Trump and the Republican Party, and the accusations about Kavanaugh will only further motivate college-educated women who live in the suburbs.
Both national polls and district surveys conducted by the media and by campaigns, as well as campaign spending decisions by the parties and PACs, show at least a modest Democratic wave developing.
According to national media reports, influential Republican political action committees have pulled out of Virginia’s 10th District (Barbara Comstock), Colorado’s 6th District (Mike Coffman) and Michigan’s 8th District (Mike Bishop).
Those districts are telling, since Coffman and Comstock were able to win even while Democratic presidential nominees were carrying their districts, and Bishop represents a district carried by both Trump in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
All three are politically competitive suburban districts. District-level polling also shows significant Republican problems — again, primarily in the suburbs — in New Jersey, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and California, and Republican funds are now flowing into districts not initially regarded as even competitive in the past.
Democratic gains of at least 30-35 seats currently appear likely, and there is little reason to believe that the Kavanaugh confirmation fight will change that outcome.
Indeed, if it does have any impact, it will probably be to the Democrats’ advantage.
Meanwhile, in the Senate
The Supreme Court battle could have quite a different effect on the race for the Senate. Instead of college-educated, suburban whites being the key swing demographic group, self-identified Republicans, rural voters and Trump voters are crucial in these contests.
Democratic incumbents in North Dakota and West Virginia certainly need to win some of those voters to have any chance of surviving (as do Democratic incumbents in three or four other states).
So Democratic senators in difficult races have a complicated calculation to make.
On one hand, if Republicans are going to confirm Kavanaugh with 50 or 51 votes anyway, endangered Democratic senators could boost their chances by casting meaningless votes in favor of the nominee — thus proving their political independence to swing voters and Republican voters in pro-Trump states such as North Dakota, West Virginia and Indiana.
On the other hand, the intensity of the Kavanaugh fight makes it more difficult for Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin III and Joe Donnelly to support confirmation because Democratic base voters are so outraged at Trump and Senate Republicans.
Voting for Kavanaugh — even if it has no impact on his confirmation — could anger and alienate those voters, which could well be fatal to the Democratic incumbents.
Of course, Democratic senators such as Donnelly now have new arguments to explain a vote against confirmation — the alleged unfairness of the process, questionable statements from Kavanaugh and the unanswered questions raised during the testimony of his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
While Democrats would love to kill the Kavanaugh nomination, dragging out the process to fill the court’s vacancy would only add to the concerns of Democratic senators running in heavily pro-Trump states by elevating the importance of partisanship, ideology and the Supreme Court.
That is less of a problem for Democrats in the House than it is for this cycle’s Senate class. Given the unexpected twists and turns of our politics these days — and of the Kavanaugh confirmation process — it’s probably wise not to rule out a few more twists and turns before November.
This column originally appeared in Roll Call on October 2, 2018.
I’m tired of all the noise and hype. I’m tired of the daily crises. I’m tired of the drama that is produced by President Donald Trump. I’m tired of the suffocating coverage by the national media of the chaos that swirls around the administration. I’m tired of the obvious partisanship on Capitol Hill. I wish it would all stop, but I know it won’t.
I’m tired of the stupid tweets from the president of the United States that wouldn’t be appropriate for a 12-year-old school yard bully, let alone someone who is supposed to be a world leader.
I’m tired of the lies and efforts to misdirect that come from Sarah Huckabee Sanders and other members of the White House and friends of the president.
I’m tired of Trump’s ridiculous rallies — his attacks on the media and the “deep state,” his misstatements about the economy, and his efforts to undermine important institutions such as the Department of Justice and the FBI.
I’m tired of all of those people standing behind him, wearing their MAGA hats and waving signs, and cheering mindlessly when he mocks his adversaries, attacks America’s allies and brags about his alleged accomplishments.
I’m tired of much of the media coverage. While I agree with most critics of the president and Republicans on Capitol Hill, I wonder why the major cable networks can’t take a break once in a while from talking Trump (or more recently, Judge Brett Kavanaugh) and instead give me some other news.
Something else MUST be going on around the world.
Could we get some more coverage of Venezuela? The nationalist regimes in Poland and Hungary? The change in leadership in Australia? China’s economy and foreign policy efforts? Africa? Something must be happening there.
I’d even like to see or read pieces on how the states are dealing with health care or economic issues.
I’m unbearably tired of the endless panels on CNN and MSNBC going over the same topics all day. And I’m tired of cable television guests who talk about the midterms but know as much about elections as I do about nuclear physics.
I’m tired of the cable shows that feature panels/guests who are only on one side of the argument, and I’m tired of cable shows that have two guests from different parties yelling at each other rather than trying to be analytical.
I’m tired of Capitol Hill Republicans who refuse to comment on and criticize stupid things the president says or does.
Nobody can ever answer a question with “yes” or “no.” I’m tired of that, too.
I’m tired — really, really tired — of the hypocrisy. I’m tired of Republicans expressing shock that Democrats are trying to delay the confirmation of Kavanaugh and apparently forgetting that they wouldn’t take up the nomination of Merrick Garland, for no other reason than Barack Obama nominated him.
I’m tired of Democrats acting as if they wouldn’t do the same thing that Republicans are now doing if they were in the majority.
You see, I watched Democrats avoid criticizing Bill Clinton when he had his scandal, and I saw former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid begin the slippery slope of undermining the filibuster.
Oh, and I’m seriously tired of people complaining about “false equivalence.”
Sure, I’ll admit that I’m not equally tired of everything.
I’m most tired about Trump’s misstatements about the 2016 campaign, his complete lack of understanding about trade and deficits, his ignorance of American history, and his bragging and narcissism.
And, of course, I’m really tired of his lies and misstatements — and his constant efforts to accuse people of doing things of which he is guilty.
By now, you certainly want to know why I’m still writing about politics if I’m so tired of it all.
That’s a fair question.
Part of the answer is that I’m not certain what else I would do.
Part of it, I’m sure, is force of habit.
I have been watching the evening news since I was a child.
We were a Huntley-Brinkley family. And my family got two newspapers delivered each day — The New York Times in the morning and the Journal-American in the afternoon.
I’ve been watching and reading about politics for at least 60 years. I still remember how excited I was right before the 1960 election and how I enjoyed watching the national convention coverage when it was on broadcast TV.
I loved watching Frank McGee and John Chancellor and Bruce Morton.
So you can say that, in part, I’m addicted.
But I also remain fascinated and entertained by the game of politics.
Maybe I will get so tired of all the tumult associated with Trump that I’ll simply walk away.
But not today.
Not at least until after the midterms, when we see more winners and losers, and when the truly bizarre story we are all now following may show signs of coming to an end.
This column appeared originally in Roll Call on September 26, 2018.