Susan Collins Reminds Us She Is Hardly a Moderate

She may be “independent,” but when push comes to shove, Collins must placate her party’s base. Photo: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AP/Shutterstock

In days of old, when moderate (and even liberal) Republicans walked the earth in numbers, they could get away with taking party loyalty for granted as they trod their “independent” path, basking in the adulation of pundits and op-ed writers and banking the support of those plenteous swing voters. That may still be true in places where the GOP is so incredibly weak that tolerating regular ideological heresy from a Phil Scott or a Charlie Baker is the best of bad options.

But Susan Collins, one of the last Republican senators anyone could describe as “moderate,” is from Maine, which has a real, viable, and lately very Trumpy Republican Party. So while she can spend much of her time in Washington proclaiming her high-minded freedom from the party line (not a big lift in a Congress where her GOP colleagues grind away like cicadas at the most predictable conservative talking points), she does have to cover her right flank back home now and then. That became especially true after she voted to convict Donald Trump of impeachable crimes and misdemeanors earlier this year (this was after her 2020 reelection; she had voted to acquit Trump in his first impeachment trial).

We saw not one but two examples of that pivot to the right on Wednesday. First, she announced in an interview that she would not be supporting the Democratic effort to pass federal legislation protecting pre-viability abortions as a matter of policy in case the Supreme Court fully reverses Roe v. Wade (as it may this year or next). Although she had a rationalization involving the alleged encroachment of the draft abortion-rights bill on religious liberties and claimed to be working on her own “codify Roe” legislation, it was still notable that one of the two pro-choice Republicans left in the entire Congress (the other being the embattled Lisa Murkowski) would go out of her way to offer this pleasing token to the anti-abortion majority of her party’s base.

But the bigger gesture of party solidarity came later via the Portland Press Herald:

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, will endorse former Republican Gov. Paul LePage Wednesday in a pre-recorded video as LePage kicks off his campaign to challenge Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in 2022 …

“As Maine recovers from the pandemic, Paul is the best candidate to grow our economy,” Collins says in the minute-long video, which was released exclusively to the Press Herald on Wednesday afternoon.

LePage was the Maine governor (elected twice by pluralities) who was sort of a proto-Trump, delighting in crude, offensive, and often racist statements while compiling a record in office typified by his monomaniacal efforts to stop a Medicaid expansion even after Maine voters approved it by a landslide. For eight long years, he was a living reminder of the harsher cultural and political trends beneath the placid surface of New England politics, and now, like a bad penny, he is back seeking a third term. But before a temporary move to Florida, he helped head off a potential right-wing primary challenge to Collins by endorsing her prior to her tough 2020 reelection contest. It was perceived at the time as sort of a MAGA thank-you note for the senator’s crucial last-minute decision to back Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation in 2018. She is now returning the favor.

Susan Collins is 68 years old and won’t be up for reelection until 2026. Presumably, that means she can offend whomever she wants for a few more years and then, if she decides to stick around in the Senate, she won’t have to worry too much about getting her party’s nomination. On the other hand, there’s no telling how far that party will move into the fever swamps by then and whether she has the sturdy boots and stomach to follow.

Susan Collins Reminds Us She Is Hardly a Moderate