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Collins' struggle in Maine reflects national distress

Collins' struggle in Maine reflects national distress

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SHRIBMAN

FRYEBURG, Maine -- How they once loved Susan.

They loved her for her sprightly independence. They loved her for her brave defiance of convention. They loved her for her resistance to regimentation, for the courage of her convictions -- and for their conviction that she had courage.

Now they hold her in bitter contempt.

Sen. Susan Collins, the four-term Republican from the potato and broccoli country of faraway Caribou (population 7,614 and 23 hard-scrabble miles from Canada), once had the highest approval ratings of any Republican in the chamber. She created her own aura, a one-woman era of good feelings for the 21st century that matched the 19th-century period when Maine joined the Union, when party rivalries were abandoned and when the country, hungry for economic prosperity and territorial growth, hurried into the future unburdened by great division.

Today there is far less good feeling around Collins, now with the lowest approval ratings in the Senate. She trails state House Speaker Sara Gideon in her re-election battle and, if her radio is on as she tools around a state that once was loopy in love with her, she might hear an advertisement with a woman saying, "I will never, ever, ever vote for Susan Collins again." Or another one that says Maine residents "can't trust Susan Collins, not anymore."

Her trust-busting crimes: voting to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and to acquit Donald Trump in the Senate impeachment trial that became a trial for Collins as well. She's struggling to redeem herself by asserting she won't vote for a Trump court nominee this fall.

But she's in peril, and her predicament imperils a Maine tradition. With former GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe -- who tolerated but seldom promoted the idea the two were warm allies, united in battling extreme partisanship -- Collins stood apart from Republican rigidity and luxuriated in their image as the heirs to the independent tradition of Maine's first female senator, Margaret Chase Smith, famous for her 1950 "Declaration of Conscience" denunciation of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Smith was defeated in 1972 by Democrat Bill Hathaway, who portrayed her as out of touch with Maine.

Yet the two were heirs to another Maine tradition, one that is tripping her up this autumn.

The state has long sent to Washington lawmakers with a national profile, including two 19th-century House speakers, Thomas Brackett Reed (known as "Czar Reed") and James G. Blaine ("the continental liar from the State of Maine"), Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (later a principal in Middle East and Irish peace negotiations), Edmund Muskie (later secretary of state), and William Cohen (a Republican who voted to impeach GOP President Richard Nixon and became secretary of defense in a Democratic administration).

Collins once won national recognition for her evenhandedness, breaking from the GOP to support background checks for gun purchases and to acquit Bill Clinton in the 1999 impeachment trial, but standing with her Republican colleagues supporting the Iraq War resolution and backing the Trump and George W. Bush tax cuts. In a measure of her disregard for ideological purity, Collins' lifetime American Conservative Union and Americans for Democratic Action scores -- regarded as right- and left-wing ratings -- both are under 50%.

But it was her Kavanaugh-and-Trump apostasy that shattered her reputation as a figure, cultivated since she entered the Senate in 1997, who resisted party diktats.

Only two years ago, Maine's Colby College awarded her an honorary degree because she "stands for how politics and governance should work in a civil society committed to democratic ideals." In the commencement address she delivered, she decried the "era of ever-worsening divisiveness" that threatened the "sense of community, which has long characterized our country," arguing that civil civic discourse had been undermined by "hyper-partisanship, insult, intolerance and accusation."

At Colby, she decried political contention that was "poisoning our discourse, turning us against one another, and preventing us from coming together to solve problems" -- only to be embroiled in just that as she campaigns for re-election.

In her early September debate with Gideon, she refused to say whom she would support in the presidential election. "I don't think that the people of Maine need my advice on whom to support for president," she said. But four years ago she wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post declaring she would not vote for Trump because the GOP nominee "does not reflect historical Republican values nor the inclusive approach to governing that is critical to healing the divisions in our country." She cast a write-in vote for House Speaker Paul Ryan.

In this re-election battle -- a hugely expensive affair, with more than $76 million in campaign spending by both sides sloshing around a state with 1.3 million people -- Collins has tried to reclaim the mantle of honest broker. In the debate, she rated Trump's handing of the coronavirus crisis as "uneven" and said he "should have been straightforward" about the threat.

But she is clearly on the defensive, a posture unfamiliar to her and awkward in a state that delivers two Electoral College votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote and one each for the winner in the two congressional districts. Four years ago, Trump lost the statewide vote but won a single electoral vote because he swept the northernmost district of the state -- the home turf of Collins.

Some 19 years ago, Collins told me that her political profile perfectly matched the inclinations of her state.

"The middle is where Maine is," she said. "We have a long tradition of sending moderates of both parties to the Senate. When liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans have been elected, they last for one term or so. People in Maine reject harsh rhetoric on either side. They think answers come through compromise and working out differences."

Then again, former Rep. Barney Frank, the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, dismissed that as what he called the "moderate three-step shuffle," a political maneuver of "ineffectual protests, abject surrender and then denial."

In this campaign, Collins is arguing that she doesn't dance to anyone's tune. Her rival says she is dancing in the arms of Trump. This much is unassailably true: The Senate race in Maine echoes the soundtrack of our era.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

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