Last fall, Erik Mercer, a Maine social worker and psychotherapist, saw one of his senators, the Republican Susan Collins, while he was waiting for a plane in Washington, D.C. Mercer, a Democrat, had approached Collins on a plane once before, after the 2016 election, to thank her for a ferociously worded op-ed she had published before the election calling Donald Trump “unworthy of being our president” and declaring that she would not be voting for him.
This time, he asked if he could sit next to her and then described the trouble he was having explaining to his children that the president was above the law, mentioning particularly the terrible things Trump says about women. Collins, he recalled, replied that she didn’t believe the president had said anything bad about women for a while, and that she couldn’t comment further because she was a potential juror in his Senate trial. The conversation was frustrating, and he called a friend immediately afterward to complain about what he perceived as Collins’s lack of courage.
Mercer soon found himself just behind Collins on the jet bridge and overheard her tell another passenger that a constituent had just been “very rude” to her. Mercer cut in: “You were the one who refused to answer my questions. I was trying to do the work of democracy, and you refused to participate.”
“He called me a coward,” Collins said to her companion.
When he got back to Maine, Mercer took out a full-page ad in the Portland Press Herald recounting their interaction. Soon, Collins’s spokesperson Annie Clark was telling Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz that Mercer had been “aggressive, confrontational, and sanctimonious.” Those exact words later appeared in a letter to the editor sent by political consultant Larry McCarthy, best known as the mastermind behind George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad in 1988, who had been with Collins on the flight.
In the span of Trump’s administration, Collins has gone from being broadly beloved, understood as one of the more humane and thoughtful Republicans in her party, to finding herself in brawls like this, widely reviled, regarded by Democrats as a loyal foot soldier to her ever-more-extreme right-wing cohort and party leader and yet by some members of that cohort as an unreliable waffler.
In 2015, polling firm Morning Consult found Collins to have, at 78 percent, the highest approval ratings of any Republican senator, second only to Bernie Sanders in the whole body. But this January, the same survey found her approval at 42 percent and her disapproval at 52; she is now the most unpopular American senator, beating out even her caucus leader, Mitch McConnell.
And that survey was taken before Collins’s ineffectual vote to call witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial, and then her vote to acquit him, choices likely to have endeared her to no one and that set her up in contrast to Utah senator Mitt Romney, who, in voting to convict the president and leader of his own party and giving a moving speech laying out his reasons for doing so, embodied the kind of politician Collins had long promised voters she was.
To many, even those most critical of her, Collins appears caught in a miserable position: the only remaining Republican senator in New England, torn between an unrelentingly disciplined caucus, Trump’s punitive base, and a liberalish Maine constituency, all during a period of enormously high stakes. But it’s not like Collins wound up in this bind by tragic happenstance.
In December, the 67-year-old senator — who, when she first ran for the Senate in 1996 vowed to serve only two terms, declaring, “Twelve years … long enough to be in public service” — announced officially that she would be seeking a fifth term in 2020.
Collins has always advertised herself as above partisan clannishness. “I want to continue the independent, moderate, and thoughtful tradition of Bill Cohen,” Collins said, during her first Senate race, in reference to the Republican senator whose seat she was running to fill. Collins had worked for Cohen, first as an undergraduate congressional intern during the year he famously broke with his party and voted to impeach Richard Nixon, then as a legislative aide for more than 12 years.
In ’96, Collins was sharply critical of Joe Brennan, her opponent for Cohen’s seat, noting that he “voted a straight party line” — with Democrats — “93 percent of the time” and arguing “I don’t think either party has all the answers, and I think we need someone who is going to take an independent approach.”
For many of the 23 years she’s since spent in the Senate, Collins did maintain a voting record more independent than your average bear’s. According to CQ Roll Call, she voted with Democratic presidents between 49 (Clinton in 1999) and 85 (Obama in 2009) percent of the time and with Republican presidents between 59 (Bush in 2008) and 88 (Bush in 2001 and 2002) percent of the time.
But according to the same publication, in 2017 and 2018, during the period of the Trump administration when Republicans had a narrow majority in the Senate and every vote counted, Collins voted with Trump 94 percent of the time. Since the Republican majority has grown, she’s gone back to casting some (largely decorative) votes in opposition, some of which work mostly to alienate her from hard-core Trump voters and look to liberals like little more than a fig leaf.
In short, Collins has gone from pleasing an unusually high number of people, at least some of the time, to pleasing vanishingly few people almost never.
Her choice to run again, against a backdrop of impeachment, ever-more partisan politics, and her own insistence that she is still the reasonable, freethinking politician she has always claimed to be, prompts questions about what has changed: Is it Susan Collins herself? Her party? Or is it simply that the Trump era has revealed something about Collins, that the moderation on which she built her Senate career was never quite as defining as she made it out to be?
Trying to get Collins’s attention has become something of a weekend sport for some Mainers. Protesters regularly post videos of themselves staging sit-ins and vigils at her Maine offices. They bird-dog her flights in and out of the state and trail her to announced radio appearances and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, sometimes standing silent with signs, sometimes lobbing questions at her on the street. In early January, progressive organizations bought giant movable billboards urging eight Senate Republicans, Collins chief among them, to hold Trump accountable during impeachment. One of those billboards wound up in front of the Bangor home of Stephen King, a longtime critic of Collins, who lives on the same street as she does.
Dan Aibel, a New York playwright who for 13 years has maintained the CollinsWatch blog and now Twitter handle — dedicated to tracking the actions and coverage of Maine’s senior senator — tells me that for years, people wondered about his quixotic interest, but no longer. “It used to be this weird, curious thing,” he said. “ ‘Why are you so focused on Susan Collins?’ And now the very same people say, ‘Oh my God, tell me what’s going on with Susan Collins.’ ”
Multiple organizations that had previously endorsed or supported Collins have turned on her for the first time: NARAL. The League of Conservation Voters. Planned Parenthood, which gave the officially pro-choice Republican an award as recently as 2017, in January endorsed her leading Democratic opponent, Sara Gideon. In the final quarter of 2019, Gideon, the Speaker of the Maine House who has not even won the primary yet (she is running in a big field that includes Betsy Sweet, Bre Kidman, Tiffany Bond, and Ross LaJeunesse), raised $3.5 million — $1.2 million more than Collins. The race is expected to ultimately draw close to $50 million, the most expensive in the history of Maine.
Collins’s neutered vote for witnesses in the impeachment trial—which came only after it was clear there weren’t enough Republican votes to risk any actual witnesses being called — didn’t seem to enrage the most powerful Republicans. One White House official told me, on the day that she cast it, that no one in the administration “is surprised or angry,” and cpac, which sent Romney a huffy disinvitation from its annual conference even before he voted to convict Trump, made no such affronted gesture toward Collins.
But her efforts to present as a solemn defender of procedural norms—she said that witnesses would permit both sides to “fully and fairly make their case” — didn’t endear her to the Trump-loving masses, who online call her a RINO (“Republican in name only”) and imagine a hero who will arrive to primary her from the right, which remains a possibility until the state filing deadline of March 16. On Fox News, conservative radio host Howie Carr suggested that her witness vote made her “the most endangered” Republican senator up for reelection. Collins’s longtime friend and former Republican state senator Roger Katz told me that not too long ago, Collins’s PAC “sent a check to one of the county Republican committees to assist them in getting their local candidates elected. But the county Republican committee is so upset with her that they sent her check back.”
Maine is an extremely rural state, its 1.3 million residents spread among 495 towns. “Susan Collins has been to every single one of those 495 towns,” said Ben Gilman, who has been in Maine politics since the 1990s and now works for the state’s Chamber of Commerce. “I always thought that she embodies Maine’s spirit: independent with a fiscally conservative, socially liberal model.”
Indeed, with the exception of its bombastic, hard-right, two-term 74th governor, Paul LePage, who served until 2019 and liked to describe himself as a precursor of Donald Trump, Maine has a lengthy history of political independence. Forty percent of voters are not registered either as Democrats or Republicans, and almost to a number, Maine natives I talked to stressed that if they were affiliated with a party, they rarely voted a straight ticket. To wit: In 2008, Obama won Maine by 17 points, while Collins won reelection by 23 points.
In addition to Bill Cohen, other state leaders, including Democratic senators Ed Muskie and George Mitchell and former Republican governor John “Jock” McKernan, were regarded as moderates, well liked both inside and outside their parties. Their forerunner was Margaret Chase Smith, who was elected to her husband’s congressional seat after his death and then to the Senate in 1948, becoming the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. Smith was a Republican hawk who supported the Vietnam War and pushed to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. But she also famously broke with her party to stand up to Joe McCarthy and his anti-communist crusade and voted against judicial and Cabinet appointments made by Republican presidents. Collins has often cited Smith as her role model and told of how she first met her on a high-school trip to Washington: “What I remember most was her telling me always to stand tall for what I believed.”
Maine, like Texas, California, and other frontier states, has a comparatively rich history of women in politics, richer in many ways than traditionally blue states like Massachusetts and New York. Olympia Snowe, another in Maine’s tradition of moderate Republicans, was elected to the Senate in 1994, two years before Collins filled the other seat, making Maine the second state to field an all-female delegation. (Snowe and Collins had a famously frosty relationship: Joe Lieberman, a friend of Collins’s, once joked with a Washington Post reporter writing a dual profile about the pair that it should be spelled “d-u-e-l.”) So many women have been in Maine politics for so long that the state has become home to multiple matriarchal political dynasties, including the Collinses’. Her mother, Patricia, was the mayor of her hometown.
Collins is from Caribou, a town of just about 8,000 in Aroostook County, Maine’s northernmost region. Aroostook, where my mother grew up on a potato farm about 60 miles south of Collins’s hometown, is rural, wooded, wild, and remote; once you get to Bangor, you keep driving more than an hour to enter it from the south.
It’s also conservative; Maine’s liberal populations are clustered near Portland and on the coast, while everything north and west in the state is pretty red. When Collins was growing up, the County — as Aroostook is called in Maine — had a robust farming economy that has slowed, as well as military bases and a college that have since closed.
Collins’s family has run a lumber and hardware business based in Caribou for five generations, and it wasn’t just her mother who was mayor; her father, Donald, was too, before he served five terms as a Republican in the state legislature. (Collins’s uncle was on the Maine Supreme Court and in the state senate.) At her father’s funeral in 2018, Katz told me, he noticed that Collins, one of six siblings, did not give a eulogy. “It was clear to me that she didn’t want it to be about the passing of a U.S. senator’s father; she wanted it to be about the passing of her father.”
Collins’s mother is a particular influence on her daughter. As Katz said, “Susan was known as Patricia’s daughter before Patricia was known as Susan’s mother.” And Richard Guarasci, who was Collins’s progressive-leaning government professor at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, recalled that Collins once returned from a Thanksgiving break and told him, “I had to tell my parents I was in your class about 20th-century Marxism; it didn’t go over well.”
One former Collins Senate staffer said that in her early days in the Senate, Collins’s parents’ sense of how she was doing in Washington was a consideration at the office. “The senator heard about it if her mom was unhappy.” Several people mentioned Collins’s outsize sensitivity to her parents’ perception of her work and life, one noting that what Patricia thought weighed heavily on Collins even into her 40s and 50s.
After her brush with Marxism in college, Collins returned to working in Cohen’s congressional office, a job she was hired for by Cohen’s chief of staff, Tom Daffron, a respected Maine political operative who would become Collins’s mentor, close friend, and — nearly 40 years after they met — husband; the couple wed in 2012, when Collins was 59 and Daffron 73.
Guarasci remembered her as a talented, driven student who “had this old-fashioned belief in public service; she saw it as a noble activity, the highest duty one can have.” Drawn to (half) of the family trade — politics — she would go on to work in McKernan’s gubernatorial administration during a controversial overhaul of Maine’s worker-compensation laws. Appointed by George H.W. Bush to be regional director of the Small Business Administration in Massachusetts, she left Maine for two years before coming back to run for governor, a race she lost to independent Angus King, now her fellow senator. She worked at Husson College before running and winning Cohen’s old Senate seat.
Collins remains very close to her family; her wedding was small and unfussy; she brings little of her Washington life back to rural Maine with her. Her brother Michael has spent time in jail on drug charges; he was arrested with 1,000 pounds of marijuana during her 1994 gubernatorial campaign, and her family has been open about his troubles. Her brothers Sam and Gregg now head up the other half of the family business — the lumber part — and are credited with its resurgence. When we are in Aroostook County, my family makes it a point to shop at the local hardware store rather than at the Walmart that has led to the closing of so many other businesses; that local hardware store is S.W. Collins.
The sharp memory and detailed niceties of retail politics come easily to Collins, especially with regard to the geography and industries of her home state. “When you get to the question of why the senator is so successful,” said one person whose family was close to hers in the County, “it’s that when I would see her on a plane from D.C. to Maine, she could always quote my parents’ Christmas letter.” Sarah Day, whose husband, Avery, interned in Collins’s Senate office as an undergraduate, recalled how Collins had made sure that Avery, who hails from a family of lobstermen on the island of Vinalhaven, got to staff the senator for the annual Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport, though he was just a college sophomore. And when I spoke on the phone to Collins in 2017 (she would answer questions only via email for this story) and told her that my family was from the County, within moments she was able to recall experiences she’d had on the road on which my mother grew up.
Understanding Collins as a “County girl” is key to some of her appeal to Maine voters, at least to some of those who feel a rugged affection for the area and are aware of its rural character and long history of economic decline.
Don Flannery, the head of the Maine Potato Board, who is a registered Republican (but has seldom voted a straight ticket), described his relationship with Collins as great, in part, because “she came from potato country, and grew up picking potatoes by hand, so she knew a lot about the industry.” Some years ago, when new science about low-carb diets, along with the nutritional advocacy of then–First Lady Michelle Obama, almost got potatoes kicked off school-hot-lunch and WIC programs, Flannery recalled, “Collins went to bat for the potato industry all across the U.S.”
Collins did not grow up on a potato farm herself, but until recently, most schools in Aroostook observed a harvest break during which students earned money by filling potato barrels. When Collins was young, that meant picking spuds out of the dirt where they’d been dug up, putting them in baskets, and dumping those heavy baskets into bigger barrels. It’s this experience that Democratic senator Harry Reid cited in 2015 when he congratulated Collins on casting her record-breaking 6,000th consecutive floor vote. “It’s no surprise to me that Susan Collins is such a hard worker,” Reid said in a statement that Collins has posted proudly on her web page. “She started this as a young woman digging potatoes for 30 cents a barrel at her neighbors’ farm.” (Collins has never missed a vote, and in July cast her 7,000th.)
Collins, said Katz, “takes everything in her life very seriously. Yes, her family is No. 1, and she has close friends, but other than that, this is her life. She’s working 70 hours a week.” Before marrying Daffron, staffers worried that she went home every night to a pile of briefing books, taking little vacation time. “I said to her one time, ‘I can’t imagine having to come to Maine from Washington every weekend, and then on a beautiful July day when you’d like to be at a lake, you have to do parades,’ ” said Bob Umphrey, an old Collins-family friend who runs a packing company in Presque Isle, “but she just laughed.”
Her reputation as a workhorse with a commitment to scrupulous study is one that Collins cultivates. During the impeachment hearings, she proudly showed a local reporter the 25 pages of notes on a legal pad that she had managed to take during opening statements.
Collins hates to be caught unprepared. Mary Small, a former Maine state senator who first met Collins in state government in the 1980s, later worked for a nonprofit that required her to meet with her as a senator. “You had to tell her everything you were going to be talking about,” said Small. “And woe if you didn’t give her the stuff you were going to be talking about, because she wanted to be able to converse intelligently about it all.”
Of course, one woman’s nose-to-the grindstone preparedness is another’s desire to maintain tight control of unpredictable situations. One activist who was granted a meeting with Collins in 2017 took contemporaneous notes on the preparatory phone call with a staffer, noting that the staffer “is handling the meeting so it is our ‘first’ meeting … and not our last. She wants it ‘civil.’ She wants ‘NO surprises.’ She wants NO interruptions. She wants this to NOT blow up in the senator’s face.”
Collins’s work ethic forces a very high bar for those staffers. “She is incredibly demanding,” one person who used to work for Collins told me. “She did not tolerate staff mistakes well.” This former staffer told me of being called to the carpet via “very sharp emails.”
Some swear that her reputation as a tough County girl is key to understanding why Collins is behaving the way she is now, politically. Speaking before impeachment proceedings, one former staffer, also raised in Aroostook, told me, “The way to get her to stand up to Trump is not to criticize her. She’s a kid from the County; she’s stubborn and she doesn’t like to be insulted. The thing to do would be to warmly tell her that standing up to Trump would be five times the courage of Margaret Chase Smith standing up to McCarthy; praise her backbone and challenge her to be great.”
But having all that County character can be a double-edged sword, especially if part of the suspicion about you is that you’re not being straightforward or available. This is something Collins’s detractors mention again and again: Although she has a reputation for excellent constituent services, including multiple satellite offices where people who are having trouble getting disability or Social Security payments can come to for help from her staff, critics agree that she herself remains determinedly inaccessible in contexts where people might speak plainly. (Collins’s office disputes this.)
But the perception of that inaccessibility leaves frustrated Mainers ready to pounce whenever and wherever they do see her — in stores and on airplanes — and Collins vulnerable to the kinds of impromptu encounters she seems to loathe and that tend to spiral even further out of her control.
In December, a video of another airplane interaction with the senator went briefly viral: In it, a woman asks Collins if she’ll return donations from Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical manufacturer widely blamed for inflating insulin prices, or from Purdue Pharma’s Sackler family, which has been widely blamed for its role in the opioid crisis that has ravaged Maine. Collins tells the woman that she has “never” accepted donations from the Sacklers (she did in fact receive contributions from them in 2007, 2010, and 2011). Collins later admitted that she might have taken money from Lilly, but said she would not return it.
The combustible interactions with constituents create a particularly strong contrast with King, Maine’s independent senator who caucuses with the Democrats and is famously gregarious and available; he asks his staff to call him “Angus” and talks to everyone all the time. When he got to the Senate in 2013, he and Collins communicated constantly. Toby McGrath, a political consultant who has worked for King, remembered Collins joking that “Angus texts me more than my niece.”
But communication between the two has slowed as King has gotten more outspoken on issues he and Collins disagree on, and the nature of their interactions with Mainers couldn’t be more different. The weekend before the impeachment vote, King held an emotional, 300-person town hall in Brunswick, joining constituents in the recitation of Abraham Lincoln quotations. Collins stayed in D.C. and worked.
Collins’s defenders suggest that many of those banging loudest on her door these days aren’t even from Maine, and point to her powerful roles on the Senate Appropriations Committee and on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee as being crucial to her state’s economic health; Collins also points to this, noting in an emailed statement that “a lot of people asked me to run again because of what my seniority would mean for the state” and that next term she’s in line to be chair of the Appropriations Committee. Collins’s fans credit her advocacy in the passage of a defense-spending bill that sought to boost jobs at Bath Iron Works, as well as at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery and Pratt & Whitney in North Berwick. In November, Collins announced, in her capacity as chair of the Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, that three programs in Maine would be getting more than $600,000 in money to support better housing options for those with disabilities. And recent ads cite almost $20 million in federal funding Collins secured to build a breakwater in the town of Lubec, part of an attempt to increase safe working conditions for fishermen there.
Collins probably has such good committee assignments because McConnell wants to keep her vote. In fact, that streak of independence and potential unpredictability is probably why so many of her Maine predecessors — including Mitchell, Cohen, Muskie, and Snowe — have enjoyed disproportionate power in the Senate. Independence is a way to exert leverage in a legislative body where your state might not otherwise have much.
For a while, Collins made use of that leverage to challenge her own party’s dogma. She was a proponent of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell”; she was one of only three Republicans to oppose the so-called partial-birth abortion ban; she voted to acquit Bill Clinton of impeachment charges in 1998. She ultimately supported Dodd-Frank legislation (though progressive critics note that she pushed to make it less effective).
“You need to look at how the landscape of the Senate has changed,” said Susan Young, editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News. “She became well known nationally in an era of the gangs: the Gang of 14, the gangs formed over the avoidance of the nuclear option or the stimulus package. She was one of the people at the center of those debates, negotiating ways to resolve thorny issues. But now we’re in the era of Mitch McConnell, and he’s not interested in compromise. So when we talk about how Susan Collins is not so moderate anymore, that’s more of a view of how politics has changed, not how she has changed. We’re criticizing her for not doing something that just isn’t happening in the Senate anymore.”
Collins herself bemoans the shrinking of her moderate lane. Speaking to a No Labels group in 2017, she described Facebook comments from the right, calling her “clearly bought and paid for by the far left.” “That, my friends, is what it’s like to be in the middle these days … you are criticized, and in some cases despised, by both sides … It feels like the moderate middle is melting like late-winter snow in Maine.”
Collins’s friend Mary Small noted that when she was serving in the state senate, as a pro-choice Republican, “we used to have a pretty big umbrella under which everybody could fit. But not anymore. I think it was the tea party. LePage exacerbated it.” Still, she said, the fact that the party has moved right doesn’t mean that old-fashioned Republicans like her and Collins are the left.
“Just because she’s a moderate doesn’t mean she’s a Democrat,” said Small, noting that Collins’s Republican colleagues, who are expected to vote Republican, don’t “get the horrid, nasty stuff that she gets.” But, as Small says, “she’s still a Republican, and she became a Republican for reasons.”
Democrats who came to imagine Collins as a true ally perhaps didn’t pay close enough attention to her established friendships with the Bush family, with Karl Rove. Maybe it’s hard to remember, in an age in which the new, hard-right Republican Party has cast its elders in a flattering but distorting light, that differences — both ideological and tribal — are by degree. And that independence within that party has always had its limitations. “While Bush was president, she was for the line-item veto,” said one Collins critic. “Then a reporter asked her after Obama was elected, and she said, ‘Oh, I’m not for the line-item veto.’ ” None of this is atypical for a senator in this era; it is at odds with the vision of a woman who claims to put her independent beliefs above party loyalty.
Former senator Harry Reid recalled how during Obama’s first term, when he was majority leader, “one of the first things we had to do was get a stimulus bill passed.” Reid said he immediately went to Collins, who agreed to help. The stimulus bill that passed, Reid told me, “wasn’t as good as Obama wanted it to be” (in part because Collins worked to reduce its scope before she signed up), “but the reason I give you that example is to show you how she’s changed.”
Reid no longer sees her as a moderating force. “I think one of the reasons that Susan was moderate was because of Olympia Snowe, who was really moderate,” he said. “Susan votes 90 percent of the time with Trump. It’s hard to claim you’re a moderate when that happens.”
Reid particularly noted Collins’s role in the confirmation of Betsy DeVos, the Education secretary who has, among other things, cut funding for the Special Olympics. As a member of the Senate Education Committee, Collins could have voted to give DeVos a negative recommendation, but she didn’t. Yet once DeVos was in front of the whole Senate, and had enough votes to get through, Collins voted against her, an example of Collins not using her vote powerfully when she had the opportunity, a pattern even more evident when it comes to her votes on Trump’s judges.
Collins has said that she has voted for the judicial appointments of all the presidents she’s served under (98 percent for Clinton’s judges, 99 percent for Bush’s, 94 percent for Obama’s, and 95 percent for Trump’s). But the previous presidents Collins has worked under have not nominated the record number of young, unqualified, radical right-wing judges to lifetime appointments that Trump has, reshaping the federal judiciary for decades to come.
When Republicans held a narrow majority in the Senate in the first two years of Trump’s term, Collins voted the party line. She was a crucial vote to confirm Leonard Grasz, who had previously described what he sees as the “moral bankruptcy” of Roe v. Wade and suggested that the term “sexual orientation” could open the doors to bigamy and pedophilia. But since Republicans have increased their majority and gained more wiggle room, Collins has begun voting against some of Trump’s judicial appointments, citing, in several cases, anti-abortion or anti-LGBTQ views that did not stop her vote when her party needed it. In other words, she’s only willing to go out on a limb when it’s easy to do so, not hard.
The vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh was a particular turning point. Collins supported the (half-baked) FBI investigation into what had happened. Women and men frantically met with the senator, advocating their side, telling her of their experiences. Some were Kavanaugh defenders, like Sarah Day, who wrote to both Collins and King (and published a public letter) vouching for Kavanaugh’s character, having worked with him in the White House.
Mindy Woerter, 35, is not registered with a political party, though the Maine native has consistently voted for Collins. In August 2018, Woerter was part of a group that traveled to Washington with Planned Parenthood in advance of the Kavanaugh confirmation, to tell Collins the story of her 2016 abortion, a procedure that, because her husband works for the federal government in shipbuilding, could not be paid for using his federal health insurance, thanks to the Hyde Amendment.
As the meeting started, Woerter recalled, Collins didn’t even address the storytellers. Instead, Woerter said, “she was very focused on her displeasure with the advocacy organization” and spoke only to the Planned Parenthood representatives, telling them that “she hadn’t appreciated the way people had treated her at an earlier event.” Collins was referring to having been commencement speaker at Colby College’s 2018 graduation, to which much of the graduating class had worn I STAND WITH PLANNED PARENTHOOD stickers, not as an explicit protest but as an affirmative expression of their commitment to reproductive health. “I recall her saying something along the lines of ‘You should all be nicer to me,’ ” said Woerter. Eventually, Woerter and her companions got to tell their stories. “She did say a couple of times that she was really sorry, and that that must have been a hard time to go through.” But the meeting ended quickly, after Collins offered up some of the reasons she felt Kavanaugh would not overturn Roe. “It definitely gave the feeling, leaving,” said Woerter, “that there was no chance of persuading her.”
Collins announced her decision in a 45-minute speech on the Senate floor, in which she defended her decision to confirm Kavanaugh and excoriated activists and critics who had raised their voices in protest. In her speech, Collins decried the “gutter-level political campaign” waged against Kavanaugh by “dark money” and “special-interest groups” (groups that presumably included Planned Parenthood, the organization that had last given her an award just the previous year), portraying Kavanaugh as the real victim.
For many, it was a turning point. “That speech was just beyond the pale,” said Joann Inman, a retired teacher who has lived in Aroostook County for six decades, a registered Democrat who voted for Collins multiple times. “Fine, you took your vote. You don’t have to rub our faces in it.” Her vote for Kavanaugh led to a lining of Collins’s coffers; in the fall of 2018, Collins raised $1.8 million, most of it from out of state. It was the best fund-raising quarter of her career at the time. The previous quarter, by comparison, she had received $140,000 in contributions.
A year and a half later, Collins remains eager to advertise her credentials as a moderate, pointing out in an email that she’s “proud of the fact that year after year I’ve been named the No. 1 most bipartisan senator,” and citing relationships between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill and Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich as evidence that “people of principles did find common ground.” Spokeswoman Annie Clark told me, as opening arguments got under way in the impeachment trial, about how a handful of handwritten changes to the procedural rules — changes that meant opening statements could extend over three days, not two — were shifts that her boss felt “were very significant.”
“She raised some concerns,” Clark told me, noting that Collins had been very satisfied with the outcome.
Collins’s “concern” about the overreach of her party or president has become a punch line. John Oliver has done a game-show bit called “Hope Susan Collins Flips and Be Disappointed When She Doesn’t,” while on Saturday Night Live, Cecily Strong’s Collins declares that presidential misbehavior “makes me want to shake my head vigorously and wag my finger once, perhaps twice” and “write a strongly worded email and send it straight to my drafts folder.”
But the political press continues to treat Collins as if she might vote in a manner completely contrary to everything we’ve learned about her in the past three years. When she was weighing the question of whether to vote for witnesses in the Senate trial, she earned breathless headlines trumpeting the possibility. It was a cycle that created the illusion of consequential independence without her ever having to cast a consequential vote.
For a long time, Collins has profited from collective fantasies about women in politics being inherently more reasonable, more naturally inclined toward collaboration and moderation. The mostly white women of the GOP have been imagined to be more practical and less ideologically driven than their male counterparts, more willing to work together toward functional, civilized compromise — especially with their female peers in the other party.
And indeed, Collins’s ties with other women in the Senate, from both parties, have been strong; she was credited with spearheading the bipartisan group of women that hammered out a budget deal in 2013 when the rest of the Senate was deadlocked. When Collins got engaged in 2012, Hillary Clinton threw her a shower with a guest list that included all 17 women then serving in the Senate. Kirsten Gillibrand told me once of Collins, “Susan’s worldview is similar to my worldview, which is that we’re here to help people, and if we’re not helping people, we should go the fuck home.” That was in 2017, a couple of months before Collins would indeed help people by casting her vote to block the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. (Gillibrand declined to comment for this story and has already announced her support of Sara Gideon.)
But the idealization of practical, cooperative women in politics, the no-nonsense gals who work well with others, has taken a hit in recent years. That’s in part thanks to a long-overdue reckoning, post-2016, with the more than half of white women who voted for Trump and, for decades before him, abetted the rise of his ever-more-punitive, patriarchal Republican Party: For what, with whom, and to whose benefit, have these women been willing to compromise?
When Collins says of the president she once deemed unfit that she believes he’s learned a “pretty big lesson” through his impeachment hearing, as she said to CBS when she cast her vote to acquit him, it’s not an accident that one of the first social-media responses was a joke from the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri: “Let’s Not Do Any Further Harm to This Promising Young Man’s Career!” It’s a reference to the pattern now familiar from the defenses of Kavanaugh and convicted rapist Brock Turner and people who think Me Too is a witch hunt: the infantilizing invocation of maternal concern for the future and well-being of men who have abused their power, the kind of concern that is increasingly associated with a strain of reactionary white femininity.
Most everyone who talks about Susan Collins acknowledges her defensiveness and thin skin. In late December, Maine Momentum, the (c)(4) arm of a statewide progressive group, began airing an ad featuring brewery owners in Lubec, a small fishing town on Maine’s northern coast, who talk about how the tax bill hurt small-business owners while affording big corporations $100 billion in tax breaks. “I have always voted for Susan Collins,” says the woman in the ad. “And I have seen her voting record change.”
Within a few weeks, Collins’s campaign released a digital spot taking direct aim at the Lubec ad, calling it the product of “dark-money lies” put forth by “Sara Gideon’s extreme allies.” Soon came a longer ad, featuring shots of the tiny town of Lubec — population 1,300 — and ending with a woman holding Collins’s hands, thanking her tearfully for the $20 million breakwater built to protect the community’s fishermen.
Collins paints much of the criticism as seeded by dark-money groups. “I would support a bill to require all groups to disclose their donors,” Collins said in the fall. (In 2010, Collins voted against the Disclose Act, which would have required groups to disclose their donors, claiming that it offered too many exceptions.)
Her impulse to hit back against criticism, and to trumpet the degree to which she is being targeted, strikes many who know her as increasingly pronounced, probably because she’s being attacked more now than ever, something she’s anxious to let people know. In the fall of 2018, Collins told the New York Times all about how “not fun” it has been for her to receive death threats, to be crowded by protesters when she goes to vote. In January, she told a similar story to Jennifer Steinhauer at the Times, recalling how one staffer quit in response to the hostile calls that poured in post-Kavanaugh; how her husband had to wear a hazmat suit because of a threat of ricin in a letter sent to her home; how a man followed her home after she parked her car in the rain.
“It just made the whole time very unpleasant,” Collins told the Times. And yes! This whole period has been very unpleasant for lots of people, including those separated from their children at the border, a Trump policy Collins called “traumatizing [and] contrary to our values in this country” while later casting the deciding vote to confirm Kathleen Kraninger, who was instrumental in the family-separation policy, to head up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2018.
Collins’s complaints — for instance, grumbling about rude treatment at the hands of college students in front of constituents there to tell her harrowing stories of trying to obtain abortion care — are in line with a broader sense of victimhood among the powerful, who have recently come in for sharp criticism, protest, and pushback: It reflects the panic that in being harshly judged, they are being unjustly maligned, canceled, witch-hunted, lynched by ravening mobs of leftists.
The vindictiveness of Trump’s base is something that Collins is well aware of, especially in the weeks before the March 16 filing deadline for a primary competitor from the right. The day of her vote for witnesses, one GOP adviser called Collins a “dead woman walking”; the (laughable) view of her as “bought and paid for by the far left” could easily land her with a far-right opponent, including LePage himself (who has, in fact, endorsed Collins). He’s changed his residency to Florida, but some rumble about how easy it would be for him to drop back in and beat Collins in a primary. Then there is the young, charismatic, and ultra-right-wing mayor of Waterville, Nick Isgro.
But if crossing Trump is a risk, there’s not a lot of compelling evidence that standing by him will win her any prizes with his base. After all, even before Romney gave his speech, implicitly indicting the other moderates who had voted to shield the president from conviction, Trump himself had humiliated Collins and her stated belief that he had learned from his impeachment. Asked about her comments, he’d denied that he’d learned anything, forcing Collins to backtrack her already dubious assertion by calling her belief in his chastisement “aspirational.” By presenting markers that are so easily, observably blown through by her party, Collins either reveals herself to be a chump, or reveals her suspicion that voters are chumps.
Despite all this, Collins might well win in 2020. Sure, the money is pouring in for Gideon, and at least in southern Maine, home to liberal and left voters, bumpers are affixed with BYE-BYE, SUSAN stickers. Every time she makes a statement, the internet is awash with people posting donations to Gideon (or one of her Democratic rivals). Google analytics show that impeachment season had a huge spike in searches for “Collins’s opponent.” Control of the Senate rests on a couple of seats viewed as potentially flippable; it is possible that she will be running in the wake of a Supreme Court decision in June Medical Services v. Gee that will result in the closing of vast numbers of abortion clinics, with all eyes on the senators who installed Kavanaugh.
But it’s hard to beat incumbents. “Pundits always want to predict that Maine is much more competitive than it is,” said Gilman.
Toby McGrath said, “This is probably the most difficult race that she’s ever had. But one of the difficulties for Democrats is that there’s going to be the highest turnout we’ve ever had in Maine. With the presidential election, I think we could be at 75 or 80 percent, with a lot of low-information voters showing up to the polls. They’ve known Susan Collins’s name for five elections.”
Six years ago, said Katie Mae Simpson, who ran State Legislator Shenna Bellows’s campaign against Collins, “everyone thought Collins was untouchable, and it was essentially true. And we ran a strong race from the progressive left — no mistakes.” Back then, there was little outside interest; feminist groups didn’t want to target Collins, since she was perceived as far more benign than other Republican incumbents. Bellows got just over 30 percent of the vote.
Gilman observed that the very rural and spread-out nature of the state makes it tough for Collins’s opponent, who may well be Gideon, a Rhode Island native who moved to Freeport, Maine, in 2003 and was elected to the Maine House in 2012. Gideon’s launch video showed her in her expansive suburban kitchen, telling the story of her entrance into politics: She’d come home and heard a voice-message urging her husband to run for town council; she ran instead.
Gideon is young, smart, and has a lot of political backing and money behind her campaign. But she did not grow up picking potatoes; she hasn’t been to all 495 towns. And that could matter. “Running a campaign in the most rural state in America with someone who’s done it several times is always a benefit,” Gilman said. “I can’t think of a U.S. senator who was not successful in reelection in Maine.”
Except, of course, for Collins’s idol, Margaret Chase Smith, who in 1972 tried to extend her record as (then) the longest-serving woman in Congress by running for a fifth Senate term and was defeated. That loss was blamed on Smith’s failure to spend enough time campaigning in the state; she had rumored health problems by then, didn’t come back to Maine enough, and was criticized for not spending enough time communicating with her constituents. She lost to a Democrat who’d moved to the state less than 20 years before.
Back in the summer of 2017, when she cast her vote against the repeal of the ACA, in the dramatic session that concluded with John McCain’s thumbs-down, Collins was greeted at the airport in Bangor with a standing ovation. In photos taken of the moment, you can see her expression of delight. “It really was so extraordinary, heartwarming,” Collins would tell Jake Tapper of the reception she received that day. “It was just amazing … It was very encouraging and affirming, especially after arriving home after a very difficult time.”
Collins is so often portrayed as stuck, boxed in by mean Mitch McConnell on one side and disruptive activists on the other, as if she is the victim of timing and circumstance. Maybe it’s a projection of how so many Americans feel right now: powerless and trapped, fearful that our single votes have little chance of changing an outcome.
But Collins, unlike us, has taken single votes that have changed outcomes; she’s not trapped. In her fourth term, in her 60s, as a senior member of the Republican caucus and senior senator in her state, as a County girl with a straight backbone, she could have had enormous influence over the nation’s future. She could have been the hero Mitt Romney was, if only she had been willing to walk away: from her party, and likely from her seat.
So really: Why stay? If, as Collins often says, whatever she does will get half the state angry with her, and she doesn’t like people being angry with her, why choose this future over the July day on the lake with her husband? Collins’s former peer and rival, Olympia Snowe, the woman whom Reid called a “real moderate,” chose to leave, announcing her retirement in 2012 at age 64 and suggesting that there simply was no space for anyone like her in the party anymore.
It’s hard to see what Collins wants to go back to Washington to do, unless it is, simply, to continue to be in the U.S. Senate, which, as Adam Jentleson, the former deputy chief of staff to Harry Reid, commented to me, “is the world’s greatest retirement home, with a full schedule and a staff to tend to all your needs.”
Perhaps the least charitable but most quotidian answer to why Collins would want to stay comes from Reid himself. “It appears what we have now is people running for Senate,” said the former senator, “many of [whom] care more about the position than what the position’s about.”
Back in 1997, her first year in office, Collins gave an interview that showed how instinctively she understood the power of being a possible swing vote in a Senate that still sometimes worked on a bipartisan model. “I’m consistently sought out by both sides for co-sponsorship of bills,” she told the New York Times. “I have a lot of power — I like that.”
Choosing between a party that now demands total fealty and a constituency she’s promised independence, Collins — a woman who has built her image around being a careful, thoughtful decision-maker — appears to have made no decision at all about the best way to keep her power. Instead, she is hoping that she can pretend to do both without anyone noticing.
It might work. But if I were her, I’d be deeply concerned.
Editor’s Note: Due to a production error, an incomplete version of this article was briefly published.
*This article appears in the February 17, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!