Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are often thought of and written about in tandem. They are two of just five Republican women in the Senate. And they are more or less what’s left of the once large faction of moderate Republican senators, and even that’s a stretch given their overall voting records (according to FiveThirtyEight, Collins has voted with Donald Trump 79 percent of the time, while Murkowski has toed the MAGA line on 83 percent of votes). They did (together with the late John McCain) play a large role in sinking last year’s Obamacare repeal effort, and nearly brought down controversial Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (Vice-President Mike Pence had to break a tie to secure her confirmation). Together they also helped their party pass tax cut legislation later in 2017.
But most notably, Collins and Murkowski are the rare Republican elected officials who support abortion rights: after a couple of House retirements in January, the two women will be the last two pro-choice Republicans in the entire Congress, representing the roughly one-third of rank-and-file Republicans who want to keep abortion legal. Given the importance of reproductive rights in the debate over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, you’d think they would have acted together on that vote as well, particularly since they went into the final hours of that debate formally undecided and holding the balance of power.
But no: They split on the motion to cut off Senate debate on Kavanaugh yesterday. Murkowski announced she would oppose the judge’s confirmation, becoming the only Republican to defect, while Collins delivered a dramatic floor speech more or less taking the party line in defense of Kavanaugh. Most scandalously, Collins cited the record of past Supreme Court nominees appointed by anti-abortion presidents to suggest Kavanaugh would stab Donald Trump in the back and betray the dominant right-to-life wing of the GOP once he’s on the court, an argument that angers activists on both sides of the abortion issue.
And even before the final confirmation vote, political repercussions for both senators were rapidly developing in their home states.
Collins is up for reelection in 2020, in a state that is closely divided politically (its two congressional districts, which independently cast an electoral vote each, split between Clinton and Trump in 2016). And both Democratic and pro-choice activists in Maine put a lot of pressure on Collins to oppose Kavanaugh — most notably by creating a crowdfunding effort to finance a future opponent for the incumbent if she voted for the judge.
Her vote on Kavanaugh guarantees her a stronger general election opponent than she faced in 2014, as CNN reports:
By the time she finished her speech, Democrats in Maine had begun speculating who might challenge the moderate Republican. And progressive activists are pouring in money to fund the eventual challenger, raising millions of dollars online to unseat Collins.
A half-dozen Democratic operatives and lawmakers in Maine raised several names of potential candidates who are openly considering the job, including Chellie Pingree, the Democrat representing Southern Maine in the U.S. House; Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives; Seth Berry, a former member of the Maine House of Representatives; and Hannah Pingree, a former speaker of the Maine House and Chellie Pingree’s daughter. Some Maine Democrats also mentioned Jared Golden, the veteran running in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District this year, as a possible challenger whether he wins or loses the race, as well as Emily Cain, a top operative at the Democratic group EMILY’s List and two-time congressional candidate from Maine.
The crowdfunding site for a hypothetical Collins opponent saw so much activity during her speech that it crashed. Between that source and one other online fund-raising site, over $3 million has already been raised against Collins around the Kavanaugh vote.
On the other hand, that vote has probably taken a GOP primary challenge to Collins off the table, which had been a real possibility given the increasingly conservative nature of Maine Republicans. Fiery conservative Governor Paul LePage had this to say after Collins’ speech:
There were even rumors yesterday that Collins wasn’t planning to run for reelection at all, and/or is interested in a Trump administration position. But that’s unsupported by concrete evidence at this point. At a minimum Collins’ claims to be a highly independent Maine Republican in the mold of former Senators Margaret Chase Smith or Olympia Snowe have been undermined, perhaps for good.
Murkowski does not have to face Alaska voters again until 2022 — which seems like light years away in today’s wild-and-wooly political environment. But she, too, got some quick blowback from conservatives, most notably this little shot across the bow:
Alaska Republicans were not pleased with their senior senator:
[T]he chair of the Alaska Republican Party, Tuckerman Babcock, says he was “surprised” by Murkowski’s decision, saying he heard about it while he was making coffee at 5:30 Friday morning when his phone started ringing.
“It’s significant enough that I’m going to convene the whole state central committee, which is about 80 grassroots volunteers around the state, and we’ll start drafting what our response should be,” Babcock said.
But Murkowski has the peace of mind associated with the fact that she has bucked her party before and survived. She lost her primary to tea party favorite Joe Miller in 2010, and was nonetheless reelected after a write-in campaign that drew votes from Republicans, Democrats and independents alike. She drew no major primary opposition in 2016, though Miller ran as a Libertarian and won 29 percent of the vote (far more than the Democratic nominee) against her.
Alaska’s sizable and influential native population has been an important source of support for Murkowski, and their leaders were strongly against Kavanaugh thanks to an appeals court decision he wrote on native Hawaiian rights that convinced them he would help undermine their traditional fishing rights.
Murkowski might have softened conservative anger at her stance slightly by indicating she would vote “present” on the final Kavanaugh confirmation, but would be announced as “paired” with pro-Kavanaugh senator Steve Daines of Montana. That means the Senate can vote to put the judge on the Supreme Court without waiting on Daines — whose daughter is getting married today in Montana — to return to Washington.
But the vote does mean that Collins and Murkowski have parted ways on the most significant vote of 2018 — and could face different political fates in the future.