Even after witness vote, Collins remains in a tough spot in Maine

Collins was one of just two GOP senators to break with party in impeachment trial

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, left, here with West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito on Friday, voted to call new witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, left, here with West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito on Friday, voted to call new witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 3, 2020 at 5:49am

It was already clear she would be on the losing side, but in voting Friday night to support calling new witnesses in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, Maine Sen. Susan Collins did what she’s known for: She bucked her party.

Collins was one of two Republican senators — and the only one up for reelection this fall — to vote against her party.

But for a four-term senator facing her toughest reelection, that split from the GOP might not make much of a difference. On the ultimate vote on whether Trump should be removed from office, expected on Wednesday, most Republicans expect Collins to acquit him, as she did with former President Bill Clinton in 1999.

As one of just two Republican senators up for reelection this year in a state Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, Collins is one of the most vulnerable incumbents. And her challenge this year hasn’t changed: She needs to prove she’s the independent-minded senator Maine voters previously elected by double digits, while holding on to a GOP base that is deeply loyal to Trump. 

Republicans in Washington are confident that Collins has pulled off that dance, even if Utah’s Mitt Romney, the other GOP senator who voted for witnesses, felt some initial heat from activists for his vote when he was disinvited from CPAC, an annual Washington-area conference sponsored by the American Conservative Union.

“The fact that she has called for witnesses — but there is not going to be any — it’s all the better. It doesn’t anger the base because she’s always got Kavanaugh,” Republican strategist Steve Gordon said. “It’s her get-out-of-jail free card.” 

Collins’ 2018 vote to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh inspired a backlash from Democrats and some independents and GOP moderates, who had urged her to stand up to the president. But for loyal Republicans, whose support she needs, it may provide enduring cover.

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It remains to be seen, though, whether her vote to allow witnesses wins back any of the voters who were so turned off by her votes for Kavanaugh and other GOP priorities. After the most important vote on whether to allow for any witnesses failed Friday, Democrats tried to offer a different amendment to subpoena four specific people, including former national security adviser John Bolton, and Collins voted with the GOP to table it.

“This is a lose-lose situation for someone like Sen. Collins,” former Maine GOP Sen. William S. Cohen, the man Collins succeeded in the Senate and who has said Trump committed an impeachable offense, told Portland, Maine’s NBC affiliate on Thursday. 

 The GOP base 

On the bigger question of removing the president, Republicans say a vote to convict the president would hurt Collins more than it would help her — even if it did win her back some people disaffected by her Kavanaugh vote.

“It wouldn’t help,” said Garrett Murch, formerly with the Maine GOP. “The Republicans in Maine are very supportive of the president.” 

If she bucks the president too much, Collins runs the risk of ending up like former New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, whose disavowal of Trump after the “Access Hollywood” video likely cost her the support of base GOP voters she needed to win reelection in 2016. 

Collins also came out against Trump before the 2016 election. She voted against the GOP health care overhaul and backed a resolution to block Trump’s declaration that an emergency at the Southern border meant he could take funds for a wall from other accounts.

To her defenders, that willingness to make both sides angry speaks to the principled nature of her votes rather than any political calculation. 

“As an independent-minded centrist, Senator Collins is often targeted by people on the far left and the far right, but she cannot be pressured or intimidated into making a decision. Mainers appreciate this thoughtful approach,” campaign spokesman Kevin Kelley said in a statement Saturday.

One of the most vulnerable

Collins’ standing in Maine has fallen over the last year in what limited public polling exists of the state. She had a 52 percent disapproval rating in a recent Morning Consult survey — a 4-point drop in her net approval rating since the third quarter of 2019.

The message coming from both national and Maine Democrats isn’t about impeachment or Kavanaugh specifically; it’s that Collins has changed and is no longer the senator she once was. Outside groups have been hitting her on prescription drug pricing, and a Maine-based issue advocacy group called the 16 Counties Coalition is launching a new TV ad this week that hits Collins for voting for the GOP tax overhaul in 2017.

“The tax bill that Susan Collins voted for is making life harder for people in Maine,” one woman says in the spot.

To the extent Democrats make impeachment a part of their messaging, they’re pointing to Collins’ vote for witnesses — especially the fact that it came after it was clear the witnesses motion would be rejected — to argue she’s an over-calculating politician putting herself before her constituents.

“It was all just political theater — she waited until [Mitch] McConnell had secured the votes he needed to block witnesses!” Democratic state House Speaker Sara Gideon, one of Collins’ Democratic challengers, wrote in a fundraising email after the vote Friday night. (Gideon backed opening an impeachment inquiry and has called for Collins to support a “fair trial” but has not said publicly where she stands on removing the president.) 

Collins had long said that she’d support calling witnesses after hearing arguments, as she had done during the Clinton impeachment trial. But Democrats had been pushing her to support establishing witness testimony at the start of the trial, and national Democrats have accused her of being less outspoken about wanting to see more evidence than she was in 1999, underscoring their overall message that Collins is not the senator Mainers previously elected. 

In an ad launched before the vote, Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC allied with Senate Democratic leadership, accused Collins of  looking out for herself, “not us,” on attempts to include witnesses earlier.

More than 70 percent of Mainers wanted the Senate to “insist” on seeing fresh evidence and hearing from witnesses, according to a poll conducted for SMP last month. A majority of likely voters thought  Trump “abused” the power of his office.

Still, the majority of paid messaging against Collins is about kitchen table issues and accountability. 

Republicans agree that impeachment isn’t what voters want to hear about. Nearly 60 percent of Maine voters in a National Republican Senatorial Committee survey from January said “Congress should focus on top issues instead of impeachment,” according to an NRSC memo released last week.

An expensive race

Regardless of how she plays impeachment, Collins is already facing what’s likely to be one of the most expensive Senate races in the country.

Her vote for Kavanaugh has energized progressives and moderate voters, who have raised nearly $4 million for her eventual Democratic challenger. 

Gideon, who’s running with the support of the DSCC and EMILY’s List, has outraised Collins two quarters in a row. She raked in $3.5 million to Collins’ $2.3 million in the final quarter of 2019. Collins ended 2019 with $7.2 million in the bank, while Gideon had less than $2.8 million.

Republicans maintain that Collins’ long track record in the state will serve her well against Gideon, a Rhode Island native who lives in the more liberal 1st District.

“Democrats will be able to cut into her margin of victory, but she’ll get at least 52-48 percent,” Murch said. 

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Although Trump lost Maine by about 3 points in 2016, he overwhelmingly carried the northern 2nd District, where Collins is from. His victory in the 2nd earned him an additional electoral vote, and he’ll be making a play for the district again this year. 

Rep. Jared Golden, a Marine veteran who flipped the district from red to blue in 2018, was one of the few House Democrats who didn’t back both articles of impeachment against Trump last year. He was the only House Democrat to split his vote, supporting the first article (abuse of power) but not the second (obstruction of Congress). Maine Republicans don’t believe that Golden’s ability to win the 2nd District means Gideon can too. Golden, a former Collins committee staffer, is staying neutral in the Senate race.

But some Democrats believe Gideon doesn’t have to persuade many voters in the 2nd District, which is shrinking in population. She might be able to win the state by running up the score in the growing 1st District, according to a longtime Democratic operative in the state. 

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Republican.