Susan Collins, a Fixture in Maine, Has Twin Troubles: Trump and Kavanaugh

EASTPORT, Me. — Senator Susan Collins jogged her way through the Fourth of July parade in this picturesque little port city, handing out American flag stickers to cheers and shouts of “Thank you!” But beneath the bonhomie, there were hints that the once untouchable Republican may be in trouble because of two men: Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and President Trump.

A retired restaurant worker shouted at Ms. Collins on Thursday to “get those kids out of cages” — a reference to border detention centers — and later invoked her vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh. An organic farmworker shouted “Kavanaugh!” as the senator ran past. A local shopkeeper has been sending Ms. Collins letters urging her to live up to the example of Margaret Chase Smith, the iconic Republican senator from Maine who stood up to Joe McCarthy.

All three voted for Ms. Collins in 2014, persuaded by her reputation as a true moderate. “I want to vote for her again,” said the shopkeeper, Linda Cross Godfrey, 72. “It will be up to her whether I do or not.”

Ms. Collins, who coasted to a fourth term in 2014 with 68 percent of the vote, will be difficult to beat. But the polarization that has swept the nation is seeping into Maine as well, even here in the Collins-friendly part of the state known as Down East, where the nationalization of politics should seem far away. That has raised an important question: Can a cautious politician like Ms. Collins — at 66, the sole remaining New England Republican in Congress — survive in the loud and angry era of #MeToo and Trumpism?

In an interview, Ms. Collins said she would decide in the fall if she would seek re-election. For now, she is behaving like a candidate.

She had raised $4.4 million for her 2020 campaign as of March, according to federal elections data, money she will need: After her Kavanaugh vote, a crowdfunding campaign raised over $4 million to donate to her eventual opponent. Last week, she drew a formidable challenger: Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House.

“I’m an important voice for the nation in an increasingly polarized environment,” Ms. Collins said, noting that a conservative Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who survived his own tough re-election battle last year, has endorsed her. “There are so few members left in the center.”

She also took a swipe at Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader: “It’s ironic to me that I am among Chuck Schumer’s top targets when there is no one who works more across the aisle.”

Ms. Gideon, the Democratic Party’s favored candidate, must first win a primary race to become the nominee. She said an interview that she would make the case that during two decades in Washington, Ms. Collins had changed, “that she has over the years taken votes that don’t put Mainers first.”

The race next year is likely to be fought in more populous southern Maine, where Portland is growing and trending distinctly Democratic. Even the more Republican North sent a warning shot in 2018 when it narrowly elected a Democrat, Jared Golden, to the House.

But here in tiny Eastport, Collins defenders say she is still one of them. The city, whose year-round population of nearly 1,300 more than doubles in the summer, looks across a bay at Canada and has the largest Fourth of July celebration in the state, a razzle-dazzle weeklong affair with beauty pageants, a watermelon-eating contest and codfish relay race, in which participants doff and don rain gear without dropping a cod.

Many parade-goers did not have Mr. Trump or the Supreme Court at the top of their minds; they were too busy thanking Ms. Collins for making a last-minute call to the secretary of the Navy to assure that a destroyer would be in port — a boon for local tourism and hometown pride.

“She hasn’t changed,” said Chris Gardner, the executive director of the Eastport Port Authority. “The ugliness of politics is what’s changed. She’s been a tether to civility.”

Politics in Maine are complicated, which means Ms. Collins faces criticism no matter what she does. Independent voters — “unenrolled,” in the Maine lexicon — account for the largest percentage of the electorate; these are the voters she must win. Democratic registration is growing, a problem for Ms. Collins. Just as problematic are the Trump Republicans who do not care much for their senior senator.

“She stabbed the Republican Party in the back,” growled Arthur L. Carter, 86, a retired Army major wearing a “proud American” T-shirt. “She hasn’t really supported our president.”

Amy Fried, a professor of political science at the University of Maine, noted the changing landscape: “I’m looking at CNN exit polls from 2014 — 37 percent of liberals voted for Collins and it has 39 percent of Democrats voting for Collins,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine that that’s going to happen again.”

More than anything else, Ms. Collins’s vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court shifted that dynamic. Abortion rights advocates had demanded that she vote no. Then Christine Blasey Ford, a university professor, accused the nominee of sexual assault, during hearings that riveted the nation.

The senator’s “yes” vote may prove one of the most consequential of her career.

“I do not regret my vote in the least,” she said, noting Justice Kavanaugh’s record on abortion — he voted to uphold a restrictive Louisiana abortion law but not to take up a case that posed a threat to Roe v. Wade.

The experience was painful for Ms. Collins; she received death threats and required police protection. But it was also painful for some voters, who truly admire her, and it has opened the door to a broader conversation about her record.

“We got Kavanaugh in, and we want those kids out,” said the retired restaurant worker, Terry Greenhalgh, 72, referring to migrant children in detention. “She’s going to lose her job if she doesn’t do something to help those kids.”

Maggie Brown, 33, the organic farmer, complained that Ms. Collins was “only moderate when it’s convenient.”

In the Senate, Ms. Collins has voted with Mr. Trump about 70 percent of the time, but she is clearly conflicted about him. At the ballot box in 2016, she voted against him, heralding her announcement in a much-read opinion piece in The Washington Post. Now she will not say if he has her support: “I am staying out of presidential politics. I’m concentrating on my own race.”

She likes his stewardship of the economy and believes his tax bill, which she voted for, “has helped spur job creation.” She is “uncomfortable with his personal style” especially when “he has not treated women with proper respect.”

But in an era when voters demand brazenness, Ms. Collins’s caution may be losing its allure for some. Asked if she believes E. Jean Carroll, the author who recently accused Mr. Trump of sexual assault, she answered: “I have no information on it, beyond what she says and beyond what he says. It’s an impossible allegation to evaluate.”

Against those national trends is Ms. Collins’s one great, undeniable asset: She is a Mainer through and through. In a state where people take residency seriously — you can live in Maine for 50 years, the joke goes, but unless you were born here you are “from away” — she grew up in the small city of Caribou in the Far North, where her great-great-grandfather started a lumber business in 1844. Both her parents served as Caribou mayor.

Since joining the Senate in 1997, she has bucked her party to vote in favor of two of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, and objected when Republicans denied the third, Merrick B. Garland, a hearing.

She joined with Democratic Senate women to help end the government shutdown in 2013. She helped Democrats sink Mr. Trump’s plan to repeal Mr. Obama’s health care law, the Affordable Care Act, though her vote for the tax bill weakened the law by undoing its central provision, which cleared the way for legal challenges. She supports abortion rights and is the only Senate Republican sponsor of the Equality Act to expand civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“I love her,” said Judy Shannon, a retired facilities manager for a bank. “I like the way she thinks. She isn’t swayed, and she can see across the aisle.”

Others are wavering. John Miliano, 61 and his wife, Jan Miliano, 60, live outside Portland but were in Eastport visiting family. He calls himself a moderate Republican; she says she is a moderate Democrat. Both have long supported Ms. Collins. They were crushed by the Kavanaugh vote.

“I have held her in such high esteem as a role model,” Ms. Miliano said, adding, “This could have been her Margaret Chase Smith moment.”

The senator believes the campaign will be fought on kitchen-table issues like jobs and health care, and is stressing her seniority.

When the parade was over, Ms. Collins looked tired, but happy, and said she felt encouraged: “I had one man tell me, ‘Don’t you dare quit. Don’t you dare leave us.’”


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