Susan Collins May Be Vulnerable, but Don’t Underestimate Her

Posted March 2, 2007 at 6:14pm

If you listen to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) talk for a few minutes, you are likely to think that she doesn’t have the toughness and quickness to hold off her likely Democratic challenger, Rep. Tom Allen. [IMGCAP(1)]

Well, stop thinking that way.

I don’t know whether Collins will be able to swim against a potentially strong anti-President Bush, anti-Iraq War current in 2008, but at this point, I’m certainly not going to bet against her.

Collins was the third moderate Republican woman elected to the Senate from Maine in a 30-year period, following in the footsteps of the late Margaret Chase Smith (elected to her final term in 1966) and Olympia Snowe (first elected in 1994), who currently occupies the state’s other Senate seat.

A native of Caribou, Collins worked for two GOP moderates, former Maine Gov. John McKernan and former Sen. Bill Cohen, before taking a job as Massachusetts’ deputy treasurer. She returned to her home state to run for governor in 1994, finishing a disappointing third behind Joe Brennan (D) and the winner, Independent Angus King.

Two years later, she ran for Cohen’s open Senate seat. Her prospects didn’t look good, but she won a three-way primary for the Republican nomination and went on to defeat Brennan, 49.2 percent to 43.9 percent in the 1996 general election.

More notable is that Collins drew 298,422 votes in that race at the same time that her party’s presidential candidate, then-Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.), was drawing just 186,378 votes (30.8 percent). Collins ran an incredible 18.3 points ahead of Dole and garnered 112,000 more votes than he did.

Collins’ strength that year, in an open seat and a hostile environment for Republicans, suggests that she ran a good race and had considerable personal appeal. It also confirmed the state’s reputation for independence.

Six years after she was first elected to the Senate, Collins went on to pummel 2002 Senate opponent Chellie Pingree (D), who was then a state legislator and widely viewed as a credible challenger.

Collins won that second term with 58.4 percent, winning all five of the state’s largest counties — Androscoggin (Lewiston-Auburn), Cumberland (Portland), Kennebec (Augusta and Waterville), Penobscot (Bangor and Orono) and York (Kennebunk, Biddeford and Saco). In the presidential election two years earlier, Bush won only one of those counties (Penobscot), and he did so with less than 50 percent of the vote. Collins won York and Penobscot, the most Republican of the five, with more than 60 percent of the vote.

If Allen runs, he almost certainly will be a threat to the Senator all the way until Election Day.

A former Rhodes Scholar with an undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College and a law degree from Harvard, Allen is serving his sixth term in Congress. He served on the non-partisan Portland City Council, including a term as mayor (appointed by his fellow councilmembers).

In his initial Congressional race, Allen won a heavily contested primary against Dale McCormick, an openly gay liberal state Senator who helped found the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance. The primary was widely portrayed as a test of ideology and activism, with Allen the establishment and the moderate candidate and McCormick the insurgent and the liberal.

McCormick counted on her ideological message and intensely loyal base, and the outcome was extremely close. But Allen won the nomination 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent and went on to handily defeat the sitting Congressman, Jim Longley (R).

Since elected, Allen’s liberal and organized labor interest group ratings have been at or near 100 percent. National Journal’s ratings place him as the 86th most liberal Member of the House in 2006, sandwiching him between Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) and Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.). In contrast, Collins ranked as the 46th most liberal Member of the Senate in 2006.

Once a reliable GOP bastion, Maine now at least leans Democratic. While Republicans control both of the state’s Senate seats, Democrats sit in both House seats, occupy the governor’s office and hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature (though their majority in the state Senate is a paper-thin one seat).

The last Republican to carry the state for president was George H.W. Bush in 1988. Since then, the best GOP presidential showing was in 2004, when incumbent Bush won just 44 percent of Maine’s vote.

Collins and Snowe seem to have discovered the formula for winning elections in Maine. Both of the moderate women come from the state’s 2nd district — Snowe represented it in Congress, while Collins hails from it — and have been able to rally support in that more conservative part of the state, while at the same time neutralizing some of the Democrats’ advantage in the normally more liberal 1st district.

Democrats no doubt will attack Collins for supporting the Bush agenda, as well as for breaking a two-term pledge. Some of those attacks may stick, but she will be able to cite a number of high-profile instances where she broke with the president or her GOP colleagues, including her “not guilty” votes on the articles of impeachment of former President Bill Clinton, her vote against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and her generally moderate views on abortion.

Though it is early, Collins’ electoral fate seems tied to whether Maine voters see her reelection as a referendum on Bush and the Iraq War or as a referendum on Collins herself. Since she has been able to run far ahead of other GOP candidates in the past, and since Bush won’t be the party standard-bearer during the 2008 general election, Collins begins with the edge. But Democrats will come after her aggressively, and she must expect a difficult contest.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.